A Little Life

***TRIGGER WARNING*** for descriptions/discussion of child abuse and self-harm.
***SPOILER ALERT*** for discussion of all the major plot points of this book.

I read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life in early November last year, starting during my commute to work on a Friday, continuing Friday evening, and finishing Sunday evening of the same weekend. It is an emotionally disturbing book, it left me unable to eat or sleep properly, and I burst into tears several times during the reading (from other reviews, I am not the only person to be affected in this way); I was afraid it might be inducing some kind of emotional collapse. Re-reading small portions to fact-check an earlier draft of this review had a similar, although not so long-lived, effect.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of A Little Life was published in the December 3rd Issue of the New York Review of Books (see also, his exchange with Yanagihara’s ‘s editor in the NYRB’s letter’s page). I had read many other reviews since finishing A Little Life, wanting to see if I had been the only person so shaken up by it; Mendelsohn’s was the first actively negative review I read, and reading it was a huge relief. Although I don’t agree with every detail of the review, it helped put everything into perspective, and articulated doubts I had started forming about the book after I had finished reading it.

At the end of his review, Mendelsohn describes the reader as being ‘duped’ by A Little Life, and I think he is absolutely right, there is something completely fraudulent about this book. The reader (at least, this reader) is put through an emotional wringer by a story that is, upon reflection, completely unrealistic, both in terms of plot, and in terms of psychological realism. I feel I was manipulated into an unearned emotional response, and I am angry with myself over the fact that I was crying over this made-up suffering, at a time when real refugee children were drowning in the Mediterranean.

I kept reading because I wanted to know what happened, because not knowing would have been unbearable (and I accept full responsibility for starting and continuing this book, nobody held a gun to my head and forced me to read it). That makes it a compelling read, but does it make it good writing? I cannot understand why it has received such praise; the writing is nothing special (Mendelsohn describes it as “often atrocious”), the passages that get quoted in the reviews are good, but they faded from memory fast compared with the negative emotional effect.

So why write a review at all? It is important to me to show that this book is not ‘true’ or ‘real’. Of course, art is not ‘real’, but good art tells us truths about ourselves, about what it means to be human. A Little Life tells us nothing, morally, psychologically or philosophically, about what it means to be alive.

The main protagonist, Jude, is abandoned as a baby, and placed in a monastery (Franciscan, presumably, since Jude is given the last name St Francis), from a young age he is subjected to severe physical, then sexual abuse, until the age of nine when he is groomed, then (willingly) abducted by Brother Luke. To survive on the road, Brother Luke regularly pimps Jude out to other men, and teaches Jude how to cut himself as a release mechanism. This continues until Jude is thirteen when the police catch up with them, and he is rescued, while Brother Luke hangs himself in the motel bathroom. Jude is then placed into a group home, where some of the counsellors sexually abuse him. He is caught during his first attempt to escape, and beaten so severely that he ends up hospitalised, and permanently scarred on his back. His second attempt is successful, and he travels eastwards, engaging in survival prostitution [1]. Jude collapses at a service station, and is picked up by Dr. Traylor, who locks him in a dungeon he has built in his basement, rapes him repeatedly, then runs him over in his car in an attempt to kill him, mangling his legs and damaging his back. Jude wakes up in hospital, and back in the mainstream system, which is what allows him to then enrol in an unnamed liberal arts college in Boston, which is where the book actually starts.

At college, Jude is assigned a room with Willem, Malcolm, and JB, and they remain friends (mostly) for the rest of Jude’s life, but he never reveals his past abuse to them. After graduation, they all move to New York, and Jude becomes a corporate lawyer, Willem an actor, JB an artist and Malcolm an architect; all four become very successful in their fields. As a young man, Jude is adopted by his law professor, Harold, and his wife Julia. In spite of all this success, Jude is not happy or mentally well, and he continues to regularly and severely self-harm. Sometime in his early forties, he meets Caleb at a dinner party, with whom he has a brief and abusive relationship (his first sexual relationship in adulthood), culminating in Caleb beating and raping him so violently he almost kills him, which drives Jude to a suicide attempt. A few years after this, Willem, now a world famous Hollywood actor, declares his feelings for Jude, and they enter into a sexual relationship. The sex causes Jude so much psychological anguish that his cutting increases; when Willem discovers this, he asks him to stop, so Jude burns himself instead, setting it up to look like a cooking accident. After this, Willem stops having sex with Jude (he has affairs instead), and they have a brief, happy period, until Willem (along with Malcolm) is killed in a car crash. Not long after that, Jude succeeds in killing himself.

Yanagihara has said that she wanted “everything turned up a little too high” and that Jude’s abuse was “extraordinary, [but] not, technically, implausible.”

There are certain things I can accept as plausible, and others I cannot, not only with regards to the plot, but also in its portrayal of human behaviour. The first and least plausible event is Jude’s abandonment in the monastery (Mendelsohn incorrectly describes it as an orphanage run by priests, which would actually make some sense), where local authorities forget him about, and his progress is never once checked on. The idea that a new-born baby would be placed into the care of a group of men who do not have the training, experience, resources or desire to care for him goes beyond the implausible to the near impossible. Are we supposed to believe that there was not one emergency foster carer available in the whole state? That the hospital would not have kept him in the neonatal unit until one became available? Perhaps if Jude had been born in the 1930’s, or the 19th Century, it would be plausible, but the monks have computers in their offices.

The violence in the monastery escalates after Jude is caught stealing, a brother sets his hand on fire, leaving him permanently scarred, and he is then regularly strip-searched, which develops into sexual abuse. The sexual abuse causes Jude to experience uncontrollable rages, which cause the brothers’ physical violence to escalate to the point where they are regularly beating him unconscious. He starts wetting the bed, and is forced to wear his urine soaked clothes all day. He is forced to eat his own vomit. Even before the theft, he is regularly beaten for minor infractions. If this is the way the brothers react to him as a child, how did they cope with a crying, shitting, pissing, puking baby, or a mobile, inquisitive toddler who is incapable of understanding the rules? How was he not battered or shaken to death in infanthood? Babies need responsive care, they need physical contact; if nobody ever cuddled Jude as a baby, he wouldn’t have grown up to be a maths prodigy, he would have grown up brain damaged. If there was an adult there taking care of him properly, what was he doing while Jude was being raped and beaten?

I would have been prepared to accept the original contrivance of the monastery for the sake of the story (there is no story without some contrivance), but I am not prepared to accept characters or scenarios that are completely irrational and do not conform to what we know about human nature.

There is a push-and-pull in writing, between what the author wants their characters to do and be, and what it is realistic for a well-defined character to do or be in a given situation. A writer who ignores the latter treats their characters like puppets, automatons to be manipulated and moved around to get the desired result [2]. Yanagihara sets Jude up; of course, all fictional characters are ‘set up’, but with good writing, you don’t see the strings. Yanagihara had Jude make every wrong choice, manipulates him into every bad situation, then finishes him off ruthlessly.

Jude himself is implausible. In adulthood he is just ‘black enough’ to cast doubt on his racial identity, and his friends describe him as ‘post-racial’; he has green eyes, multi-hued brown hair that is straight enough to grow long over his face, and skin that turns bronze in the sun. As a baby, he is, somehow, ‘too black’ to be adopted, even though newborn babies haven’t been exposed to the sun, and a green-eyed adult would have been a blue-eyed baby. US couples will travel to China to adopt malnourished babies from orphanages, the idea that no one would have wanted Jude makes no sense.

There are so many plot points that don’t add up. Why was Jude not given any psychiatric care after being rescued from Brother Luke? Why did the state school he attended while at the children’s home take enough of an interest in him to move him up four grades and arrange extra maths classes for him at the local community college, but then take no interest at all when he tried to run away, and was subsequently beaten so badly he ended up in hospital? Why did the police not become involved when a child was admitted with such injuries? Why did a doctor treating a raped and crippled child think it was appropriate to lecture him on the necessity of disclosing his STI status to future partners?

Jude thinks he’s ugly because some of the men who abused him at the children’s home called him ugly, but why does that have more weight than the years spent with Brother Luke, and all the men who paid to rape him? Why, when Jude thinks he is a terrible person underneath, does he then choose a career path that makes him a ‘bad guy’ (money alone doesn’t explain it)?

Jude is passive when it suits the plot, and active when it suits the plot. He is active enough to run away twice from the children’s home, but while he is surviving through prostitution he is too passive to use the money he makes to buy a bus ticket. He is active enough to create an elaborate lock for his bedroom window, but when Andy gives him ointment to treat his scars, and he can’t reach his back on his own, he gives up (even though he is desperate to get rid of the scars).

Jude is in constant pain from the damage inflicted on his legs and back, but only because he refuses to take pain medication. He goes against medical advice to have his damaged lower legs removed, ends up wheelchair bound, and only has the amputations after a life-threatening bone infection. The reason’s given for these choices, that pain medication has negative side effects, that he wants to control what happens to his body, are valid, but the desire for control could equally be used as a motivation to find a pain-control regime that works, or to remove his failing lower limbs, undergo physiotherapy, and have more mobility with prosthetics.

Jude is pimped out by Brother Luke in the age of smart-phones and the internet [3], and we are told that he was photographed and filmed, yet the only evidence of this abuse to resurface is a grainy photo that may not even be him. In adulthood, despite being in a same-sex relationship with a Hollywood star, Jude is never chased by the paparazzi, and never has a reporter digging into his past.

Jude is infected with STIs that he feels morally obliged to disclose to Caleb, giving Caleb another opportunity to humiliate him, but he doesn’t contract anything as inconvenient as HIV, or anogenital warts, and he suffers no long-term physical after-effects from being repeatedly anally penetrated as a small child.

Why does Jude stay with Caleb? He is not financially or socially dependent on him, and the bullying and the physical and sexual abuse start almost immediately. Most abusers know when to turn on the charm in order to keep their victims bamboozled, but beyond their first meeting, Caleb is never even nice to Jude. Jude tells Harold he has to be happy with what he can get, but why, when so much else he does is about staying in control of what happens to him, does he put up with a relationship he gets nothing out of?

The answer to all these inconsistencies is easy, Jude is like that because Yanagihara wrote him that way. She needed to move him from A to B to C, so she did, never mind what the real world is like, or how humans behave in it.

Yanagihara is a cat, slowly torturing a mouse to death, sometimes the mouse may think it has escaped, but in fact, its death has just been prolonged a moment longer.

What look like compensations in Jude’s adult life are in fact just devices to prolong his suffering. As an undergraduate, he meets a doctor, Andy, who agrees to treat him, privately and for free, indefinitely (Andy does ‘retire’ from this role late in the book, causing a crisis). Jude never fully discloses his past abuse to him, but Andy is fully aware of his self-harming behaviour. In real life, Jude would have been committed after the first act of self-harm described in the book, when he cuts too deeply and needs emergency care. Under such circumstances there would have been a paper-thin chance of him actually getting the psychiatric care he needed (although in Yanagihara’s world, it would just have been another opportunity for men to rape and physically abuse him), instead, Andy enables his behaviour for decades.

In Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed the inhabitants of the desert world of Anarres have no word for ‘wallowing’, instead, they use “a compound, meaning literally ‘coating continually and thickly with excrement.'” This is what Yanagihara is doing to her protagonist, continually coating him in a thick layer of excrement.

Reading this book is also like being repeatedly coated in a thick layer of excrement; it is a relentless and punitive read. The self-harm and psychological distress is described repeatedly and explicitly, the exact details of the child sex abuse, thankfully, not in quite so much detail.

I don’t know why this book managed to sink its claws into me. I have not been physically or sexually abused, but I do know what it is like to feel unloved and unlovable, to fear that you are hollow inside, I think that may be the element that upset me so much. During the earlier sections of the book, I was jealous of Jude, and his amazing friends, but no one has such completely solipsistically dedicated friends like that in real life, it is just another unbelievable element.

Jude’s childhood physical and sexual abuse is discussed in all the reviews, but I don’t recall any reviewer mentioning the emotional abuse he also suffered. The monks make it very clear that they don’t like him, and resent him being there. This taps into a vein of Christianity that is all about punishment and burden, but a brother complaining about how much it costs them to look after him strikes a particularly false note, given that Franciscans are dedicated to a life of poverty (the monastery also appears to be a working farm, and Jude, even as a small child, does a share of the cooking and cleaning and gardening). They tell him he must have done something terrible to be abandoned as a newborn baby (but then Christianity has also given us the grotesque concept of ‘original sin’), and once the rages start they tell him they wish he was dead. The monks tell him very clearly, that he is unloved and unlovable.

A Little Life isn’t actually about child abuse, or disability (how many disabled people in real life have their own architect?) or cutting – there is no ‘advocacy’ in this book on behalf of real-life victims, there is no interest in showing up the flaws in the system (because it is not about ‘the system’, it is not set in the real world at all). It is about (to use Mendelsohn ‘s choice of terminology) abjection, it is about dirt, and wallowing in it, both Jude and the author and the reader.

But, at the same time as wallowing in dirt, the horrific abuse in A Little Life is, in a strange way, ‘sanitised’. The monastery provides Jude with a classical education (Latin, literature, music) that gives him an inroad into the educated middle-class. The cutting is sanitary (he cleans and bandages himself afterwards), compared with a drug dependency (the control method of choice for most pimps) or alcoholism (no coming to after an alcohol induced black-out wondering what he’s done). The cutting is a method of self-control, that mostly works. Having Andy as a de facto private physician is sanitary, no sitting in the waiting areas of public hospitals, being exposed to the mess of other people’s lives, no strangers seeing his medical notes. His wealth is sanitary, it allows Caleb’s abuse to occur in private (no thin walls or neighbours who know you).

Jude’s crippling, even, is sanitising, it gives him a way back into the mainstream, and then into college; if he had been caught by law enforcement while engaging in survival prostitution, he would most likely have been treated as a criminal, not a victim, and ended up in the juvenile criminal system; his pseudo-middle class up-bringing, at the hands of the monks and Brother Luke, would have given him no skills for surviving that system.

Jude keeps himself inside an hermetically sealed world of wealth, work, and his close circle of friends and adopted family, he refuses to accept he is disabled, he does not accept the label of child sex abuse victim, he keeps himself ‘clean’, outwardly at least.

His choice to become a corporate lawyer, defending giant pharmaceutical companies from whistleblowers, makes him a ‘bad guy’, but no one in his sealed world seems bothered by this. His choice to do this makes a certain amount of sense, he wants money to keep himself safe and independent (there is a sub-plot point about saving up for some kind of experimental scar removal treatment, which is unconvincing, surely there are treatments available already in the real world?), but if he had become a public prosecutor or similar, bringing ‘bad guys’ to justice, maybe even changing the system (maybe going after child abusers), that might have been therapeutic in itself. Instead nothing he does changes the world for the better, he does charitable works, but only of the papering-over-the-cracks, not challenging the status quo variety.

These are not the choices of a real person in those situations, these are the choices of the author.

Many reviewers have stated their disbelief that anyone could have suffered as much abuse as Jude does, but I disagree. The exact details of his abuse, especially his placement in the monastery, is implausible, but the levels of abuse he suffers are not; children are physically and sexually abused by their parents, by their ‘carers’ all the time, abused children run away from home and survive on the streets through prostitution all the time, psychopaths and serial killers target on-street prostitutes because they are the most vulnerable and nobody misses them. The only implausible thing about Jude’s abuse is that he survived it in some form. Most permanent runaways end up in poverty or homeless and in and out of prison, they vary rarely get to go to prestigious Boston colleges.

Jude’s level of suffering occurs in the real world all the time, we just don’t want to know about it. Mostly, it doesn’t end in material wealth and luxury, it ends in poverty and grind, but those ‘little lives’ are not deemed worthy of 700+ page tomes.

It’s hard to work out what the extravagant wealth and luxury of Jude’s adulthood is actually for (it goes far beyond what Jude needs to materially survive). One reviewer suggested it was satire [4], and it can certainly be read as satire, but there is nothing the author has said to support that claim. It acts as an aesthetic counterpart to Jude’s previous squalor, but it adds nothing to the plot or characterisation. There is something distasteful about the extravagant luxury; I hope Yanagihara does not think that Jude’s unhappiness, even when in possession of excess amounts of stuff, somehow ‘proves’ he is broken, or that self-harm somehow becomes more poignant when it occurs in the bespoke marble bathrooms of Manhattan apartments.

Even the sexual relationship with Willem starts out as abusive; the sex feels like a prison sentence to Jude, it causes him psychological anguish as it forces him to remember all the things from his childhood he had tried to forget, it makes him self-harm more, and he has to force himself not to disassociate while it happens, but somehow this is worth it for the hand-holding afterwards. Willem has supposedly been his best friend for decades, but he is too afraid to lose him to refuse him sex, ever.

It only ends after Jude inflicts third degree burns on himself (because he has promised Willem he will stop cutting – Willem is physically violent more that once in response to his cutting), and when Willem finds out, he forces him to tell him the truth about his abuse.

What this particular ordeal is supposed to ‘say’ I don’t know, is it supposed to be romantic? I could put together an argument that is satirises the idea of the empathetic ‘nice guy’ but there is zero evidence Yanagihara was trying to do that. Most likely it is just another opportunity to wallow in muck.

Willem knows he is hurting Jude, but he pretends he doesn’t – early on he coerces Jude into taking a shower with him (saying it will be good for him, because at that point he thinks Jude’s fear of sex is to do with self-consciousness over his scars), pushing him into a fugue state. Jude is impotent, he tells Willem it is a result of the injuries from the car accident. Brother Luke taught Jude how to behave ‘enthusiastically’ when penetrated, and Jude uses this to make the sex finish faster (he doesn’t like ‘foreplay’ any more than he likes being penetrated). Willem believes all this, in spite of already suspecting Jude may have been sexually abused as a child.

Willem doesn’t believe he could really be harming Jude, he loves him after all; he also wants to stick his dick in him, which might bias his judgement – a scene written from the point of view of Brother Luke could sound rather similar.

As a small child, Jude thinks he has ‘forced’ the monks to beat him, that there is something terribly wrong with him, some monster inside that needs to be kept in check; as an adult, he believes he ‘forced’ Caleb to abuse him as well. It is normal for abuse victims to blame themselves, but Yanagihara seems to believe it too; in an interview at Electric Literature, Yanagihara says:

“If you’re a writer, you must be able to summon empathy for all your characters, even and especially the despicable ones. You needn’t like them, but you must respect them – even if you don’t respect every aspect of them. If not, that character becomes simply a catalog of his pathologies, and that’s a hollow character. Actually, that’s not even a character: it’s just a pastiche of bad behavior. I tried to keep this in mind in A Little Life when I wrote the characters who make Jude’s life so awful – Caleb and Brother Luke and Dr. Traylor. They were always much more complicated people to me than they are to him; he sees them one way, of course, and so he should. But I tried to make all of them a little mysterious to the reader, to suggest that there were other lives they led, that they were someone else entirely to the other people in their life. Caleb, especially, should come across as someone with nuance, with an unseen but suggested other persona: Jude is meeting him as an adult, and so even he’s able to see that the way Caleb behaves with him might not be the way he behaves with other people: he has a sister he’s close to; he has a job where he’s clearly respected; he finds a boyfriend after Jude. This, of course, is exactly what he fears: that Caleb’s behavior towards him is indicative less of the core of Caleb’s identity, and more a set of responses that’ve been inspired by Jude himself.”

Reading the above, it’s difficult not to think that Yanagihara hates Jude as much as Caleb did.

In the same interview, Yanagihara also said: “Because Jude encounters Brother Luke and Dr. Traylor as a child, he’s much less able to see who else they might be besides his abusers – and so too, therefore, the reader; in Jude’s childhood sections, I tried to tilt the semi-omniscience that informs his adult chapters to something more intimately his point of view, which is by necessity narrow and childlike. But I always knew they were someone else, that they had other lives, other interests, other qualities, or I wouldn’t have been able to write them authoritatively. One hopes, as a writer, that your readers can sense as well some of what you’re not saying about your characters, that one senses the totality of their conception.”

This is quite breath taking, and disturbing; to create a character like Jude, who exists only to suffer, then tell us we need to understand the other ‘good qualities’ of his abusers. Given the obsessive nature of Brother Luke and Dr Traylor’s paedophilia, one going on the run for years with his child victim, the other building a dungeon in his basement then finding a victim to put in it, I don’t give a shit about their “other lives, other interests, other qualities”, they pale to meaningless beside that main obsession. (The ‘good qualities’ of child abusers was a major theme in Yanagihara’s previous book The People in the Trees as well [5].)

The fact that Brother Luke is written as Jude’s carer as much as his abuser (he tells Jude he loves him, he never hits him, he doesn’t let the johns rough him up, he keeps up his education, even buying an electronic keyboard to continue his piano practice, and early in the book we are told he once cared for an injured wild bird) is disturbing, especially as it is only there to heighten Jude’s suffering. Jude sees Brother Luke as his first ‘relationship’ (Brother Luke promises to marry him when he’s older), and sees his cutting as a ‘solution’ Brother Luke gave to him, rather than a control mechanism he put in place. Jude’s inability to mentally escape Brother Luke dooms him from the start. It’s hard to know how realistic this is, it’s not explored enough to really elucidate it properly. Jude wants to forget his past, so he never properly examines the worldview he developed as a helpless child, when Brother Luke had complete control over him (remember, Jude does not see himself as a victim of child sex abuse, which means he feels culpable for what Brother Luke did, even if, as a groomed nine-year-old, he had no real agency to choose).

Also in the Electric Literature interview, Yanagihara says: “As for the limits of therapy: I can’t speak to them, only that therapy, like any medical treatment, is finite in its ability to save and correct. I think of psychology the way I think of religion: a school of belief or thought that offers many, many people solace and answers; an invention that defines the way we view our fellow man and how we create social infrastructure; one that has inspired some of our greatest works of art and philosophy. But I don’t believe in it – talk therapy, I should specify – myself. One of the things that makes me most suspicious about the field is its insistence that life is always the answer.”

If Jude had received some therapy early on, his view of his ‘relationship’ with Brother Luke might not have calcified and slowly poisoned him. Since he told no one about it until he was in his forties, there was no opportunity to heal. But Yanagihara chooses not to give him that chance; she pulls his strings the way she wants him to go (she doesn’t actually prove her point about talk therapy not working by denying it to her character until he is in his fifties).

In the Women’s Prize for Fiction Q&A Yanagihara writes: “What I hope IS apparent on the page is how much I enjoyed creating them [the characters], how well I knew them, and how much I enjoyed spending time with them – all of them.”

The emphasis there has to mean Jude’s abusers – what does it mean, to create a character like Jude, torture him slowly to death, then tell us how much you enjoyed the exercise? Again this is actually disturbing.

In the Electric Literature interview Yanagihara says: “One of the things I wanted to do with this book is create a character who never gets better. And, relatedly, to explore this idea that there is a level of trauma from which a person simply can’t recover. […] So much of this book is about Jude’s hopefulness, his attempt to heal himself and I hope that the narrative’s momentum and suspense comes from the reader’s growing recognition – and Jude’s – that he’s too damaged to ever truly be repaired, and that there’s a single inevitable ending for him.”

So, yes, she did create a character just to suffer (I can’t actually recall any of Jude’s attempts to ‘heal himself’, beyond the naive desire to fix the scars on his back; survive, yes, but not heal), but again, this book, in its extremeness, can’t tell us anything meaningful about human suffering – reading that interview, and Yanagihara ‘s claims about what she was trying to achieve, I can’t help thinking that her reach far exceeded her grasp; Jude cannot recover because Yanagihara doesn’t let him, not because Yanagihara has some great insight into the human condition.

It does seem that Yanagihara hates Jude, to create a character, then torture him slowly to death over 700+ pages, then say in interviews how much you enjoyed the process, suggests a certain level of sadism.

Also from the Electric Literature interview: “One of the things that makes me most suspicious about the field [of psychology] is its insistence that life is always the answer. Every other medical specialty devoted to the care of the seriously ill recognizes that at some point, the doctor’s job is to help the patient die; that there are points at which death is preferable to life […] in the West, that’s exactly what we think: that suicidal thought is a symptom of a sick, or at least troubled mind. But I do think that that’s something of a cultural and religious construct. In America, we think there’s something shameful about it; we react to suicides with something approaching rage: What was he thinking?; It’s the coward’s way out. But in Asia, suicide isn’t viewed in the same way. Or it wasn’t, for many years. Here, we associate suicide with despair. There, you might say that the cause can be, sometimes, culturally sanctioned. This is not to say suicide isn’t just as devastating and often perplexing in the East as it is in the West – only that I don’t think there’s a single way to consider its meaning.”

If Yanagihara was attempting to write a philosophical treatise on the acceptability of suicide, she fails, because her example is too extreme; to create a character, torture him for decades, and then have him kill himself, tells us nothing about the permissibility and rationality, or not, of suicide, because it tells us nothing realistic about the human experience. What about the rest of us, with our normal, everyday sufferings? Do any of us have it bad enough, when compared to Jude St Francis, to justify suicide?

This is potentially offensive to abuse victims, Yanagihara ‘s message here is that some people are broken beyond repair, and any attempts to seek psychiatric help are on par with faith healing – so suicide is their best option. It’s lucky this message was not clearly communicated in the book, otherwise it might do some vulnerable readers harm.

Another disturbing factor is Yanagihara ‘s portrayal of homosexuality, and linking it to paedophilia. At one point in the book, Jude imagines starting his life over again, as a normal child, with Harold and Julia as his parents; he imagines being fifteen years old, with a girlfriend.

Mendelsohn says in his review: “You wonder whether a novel written by a straight white man, one in which urban gay culture is at best sketchily described, in which male homosexuality is for the second time in that author’s work deeply entwined with pedophiliac abuse, in which the only traditional male-male relationship is relegated to a tertiary and semicomic stratum of the narrative, would be celebrated as “the great gay novel””

One of the reviewers on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, describes Yanagihara’s depiction of gay men in this way: “every gay character in it, they are drug addicts, they’re the victims of abuse […] their sexuality is formed that way, or they’re abusers, or even worse, they’re just sitting there, waiting for a beautiful, handsom straight man to come along and fall in love with them.”

Yanagihara’s recent piece in the Guardian comes across more than a little as her trying to justify A Little Life:

“I sometimes wonder if what we’re really trying to praise is not the subject matter or the politics or even the aesthetics of the book, but the author’s ability, or even just willingness, to be impolite, to be messy, to be extravagant on the page. A novel can be perfect in its structure, in its logic, in its composure, but the most memorable novels, the most electrifying, are the ones that understand the necessity of imperfection, of ragged edges, of being distasteful, of making mistakes, of being demanding of the reader. […] The violence of the book would, it seem, Upset the Reader. The wildness, the embarrassing bigness, the excessiveness, of emotion would Upset the Reader. The length would Upset the Reader. And yet, as readers, don’t we read fiction exactly to be upset? A novel, in its truest form, is a questioning of what it means to be human, of what a life is. But what makes it different from, say, a work of philosophical inquiry is, among other things, the way it uses (or misuses, or differently uses) language and, second, the particular sense of discomfiture it can provide.”

Well no, I don’t read to be Upset (condescendingly capitalised). I read to be moved (not the same as being upset, with a big or small U), to be exposed to new ideas, new ways of being in the world, to gain some kind of insight in to what it means to be human; if not that, then to just enjoy a good story.

Yanagihara is right about a novel’s need to question what it means to be human, but she does not achieve that feat in any respect. She does a lot of other things, particularly ‘Upset the Reader’ and her book is embarrassingly excessive – the whole thing is a mess. If Upsetting people were a meaningful pursuit, The Human Centipede would have won an Oscar.

Yanagihara also describes being praised as ‘brave’ for writing A Little Life, there’s nothing particularly ‘brave’ about making shit up.

 

 

Notes

[1] I am using the term ‘survival prostitution’ as the least worst way to describe Jude’s commercial sexual exploitation – even using the term ‘prostitution’ is problematic, as it implies some kind of choice on his part, but the term ‘commercial sexual exploitation of children’ is unwieldy.

[2] I am not the only reader to be of this opinion. One of the reviewers on the BBC Radio 4’s Front Row also calls Yanagihara a ‘puppet master’, and describes everything in the book, good and bad, as the author’s own ‘wish fulfilment’.

Christian Lorentzen in the London Review of Books, writes: “The answer, of course, is that it’s Yanagihara’s design. That’s why it’s good to know that Jude is entirely her concoction, not a figure based on testimony by survivors of child rape, clinical case studies or anything empirical. I found Jude an infuriating object of attention, but resisted blaming the victim. I blame the author.”

Mendelsohn writes: “But the wounds inflicted on Jude [as a child] are nothing compared to those inflicted by Yanagihara herself. […] Jude might better have been called “Job,” abandoned by his cruel creator. […] There is something punitive in the contrived and unredeemed quality of Jude’s endless sufferings; it sometimes feels as if the author is working off a private emotion of her own.”

[3] The whole novel is set out of time. For Jude to have been abused the way he was – Bother Luke has a lap-top, and the internet is advanced enough for nowhere motels to be connected, and for rural paedophile rings to be internet based – he must have been born in the mid-90’s at the earliest, so that his early adulthood in New York takes place post 9/11 and his middle-age in the future. Many reviewers commented on the lack of historical context to the novel, this didn’t particularly bother me, and some things, like not naming any social media, is a smart move, as nothing else risks aging a book like referencing soon-to-be-obsolete technology.

[4] Elif Batuman writes “I was interested to note that the scenes of cutting and child rape were intercut with another genre of writing that I normally don’t care for: “Sex and the City”-style lifestyle porn. Everyone in the book is or becomes famous or prestigious or powerful; they have Whitney retrospectives and win “major awards.” Conveniently, Malcolm becomes a famous architect and is able to outfit his friends’ SoHo lofts and upstate farmhouses with bathtubs made of “cypress sourced from Gifu”; Jude’s country house includes a barn modified in such a way that all the walls can rise up, letting in the smell of the tree peonies and wisteria. There are a lot of parties in A Little Life, where recherché foodstuffs (gougères, herbed shortbread, cornmeal gingersnaps) are consumed by interesting, accomplished friends and lovers.

“I was mystified at first as to how I was able to tolerate, let alone devour, a book so devoted to two of my least-favorite literary topoi (pedophilia, lifestyles of the rich and glamorous). Then it occurred to me that perhaps what was so compelling was precisely the combination of the two. It’s as if you get to see all the misery – the moral compromise, inequality, jealousy, and self-doubt – that we know lies behind every gorgeously finished brownstone floor – through, every “prestigious” career, every “major award,” every super-expensive sushi dinner at a New York City restaurant with only six seats (“all at a wide, velvety cypress counter”), displaced on to this one guy. That’s why his suffering has to be so far over the top.

“[…] when I read about all the great apartments and great parties and great meals, juxtaposed with the visceral and meticulous story of a child whose trust and body and soul are systematically and deliberately broken by sadists for their personal entertainment, I felt that I recognized something true, and I felt comforted.

“As I read, I felt no reproaches for the people who disliked A Little Life; I saw why they did. Jude’s tribulations do seem to have been gratuitously inflicted on him by a perverse intelligence. But I discovered that I was one of the many readers who found, in the gratuitousness, something recognizable and true. At a certain point, I had a mental picture of Yanagihara looking grimly at her computer, typing, over and over, certain kinds of sentences […] “You want ‘Sex and the City’?” I imagined her thinking. “Here’s your ‘Sex and the City.’” I was riveted.”

[5] “All this [the story] is framed and indeed spun by a preface, epilogue and copious lengthy footnotes throughout the narrative – some explanatory, others nakedly exculpatory – written by one of Perina’s former students, Ronald Kubodera. Yanagihara doesn’t play as many pale, fiery games with this conceit as she might have done, actually; except (in one of the book’s rare missteps, I thought) for a few pages editorially excised, and shunted to the back of the volume. These [spoiler] include a horribly vivid account of the rape of a child. If the idea was to try to raise narrative suspense of the did-he, didn’t-he abuse those children kind, it falls flat; Yanagihara does such a good job in ventriloquizing Perina’s voice that you don’t need to have his bad actions painstakingly spelled out to understand how bad a man he is. This is not a matter of ‘evil’. In many ways Perina is not only not evil, he is exemplary in his goodness: he is scrupulous, observant, considered, hard-working, dedicated to improving human existence on this planet. He is moreover conscious of moral obligations as obligations – in a slightly Sheldon Cooperish way, but palpably – and acts upon them, giving a home, educations and new lives to scores of underprivileged children as personal costs that are both financial, practical and emotional. He is not an absolute moral relativist, but Yanagihara carefully makes plain, in a shown-not-told way, that encountering the different social mores of ivu’viu, where for instance adolescent boys are sexually initiated by older tribal men as part of an honoured tradition, reinforces his own sexually predatory nature back in the USA, where such a context does not exist and where such sex is therefore inevitably abusive. I have seen comparisons with Lolita, but they don’t seem to me really to fit the novel. Humbert Humbert knows he is doing wrong; he simply prioritises his individual aesthetic-erotic ‘joy’ over social mores. But Perina gives the impression really of not knowing that what he is doing is wrong. The novel understands that it is; but one of the clevernesses of Yanagihara as a writer is that the novel knows this despite the fact that neither of its two narrators comprehend it.”

http://sibilantfricative.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/hanya-yanagihara-people-in-trees-2014.html

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58 thoughts on “A Little Life

  1. My aim, with writing this review, was to get it all out of my system and forget about it, but it is still not going away.

    It obviously hit a nerve, personally, emotionally, and untangling that is not something I am going to do on the internet (even anonymously on a blog that no one reads).

    My intelligence and my pride have been wounded by the fact that I was duped by this book, 700+ pages of torture porn that is, for some reason, being treated as ‘literature’.

    I need to prove that this book is Wrong (with a capital W); it is wrong morally and philosophically, in the arguments Yanagihara has claimed she is trying to put forward, and it is wrong as writing as such.

    In an interview published by AFR Weekend (http://www.afr.com/brand/afr-magazine/author-hanya-yanagihara-on-why-a-little-life-is-a-fairy-tale-20160314-gni92s) Yanagihara says:

    A Little Life is very much a fairy tale, and I borrowed many conventions from a typical Western fairy tale: a lack of parents; an absence of time; a foundling child who has to endure terrible struggles; a surfeit of vividly described suffering; a clear divide between good and bad. But it’s a fairy tale set in a contemporary time and place, and at first, it shouldn’t feel like a fairy tale at all; rather, it begins by masquerading as a conventional naturalistic novel. These two genres don’t make an easy marriage, but I hope it’s one that generates its own sort of strange, occasionally implausible, enchantment.”

    In that regard it is a failure, the men who abuse Jude cannot be, both at the same time, two dimensional fairy tale villains, and psychologically complex characters with deep internal lives and full back-stories (as she claimed in the Electric Literature interview, contradicting her claim here about clearly divided good and bad).

    There is nothing about A Little Life that suggests ‘fairy tale’, Yanagihara’s attempts simply come across as poor world building (world building matters, ask any SF/F fan). There is too much detail, of stuff, of internal states, too many specifics.

    Fairy tales deal in mythical archetypes, not psychologically unique individuals. Take, for example, Spirited Away (one of my favourite films); do Chihiro’s parents have deep psychological reasons rooted in childhood trauma for eating the foods of the gods, causing them to be turned into pigs? We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter that we don’t know (and it would be ridiculous to say that we needed such a back-story). Is there any aspect of Chihiro’s upbringing that explains why she has the courage and resilience to deal with adversity and win her parents back? We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter that we don’t know. Chihiro could be any ten-year-old girl, that’s the point, but she is still a real person, with real and realistic emotional reactions, she reacts with horror at her parent’s transformation, she winces when she bumps her head.

    There have been lots of attempts to add a psychological dimension (a ‘back-story’) to fairy tale characters, the one that springs most readily to mind being Maleficent, but I haven’t seen that film, so can’t comment on how well it works.

    I am also reminded of a book I read a while ago Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/aug/01/tender-morsels-margo-lanagan-review), which covers some of the same themes as A Little Life, but works both psychologically, and as myth.

    Another thing this week that brought me back here, is listening to the track ‘Forward’ from Beyonce’s new album, Lemonade (I am a James Blake fan, rather than a Beyonce fan, so have not purchased, and therefore cannot comment on, the rest of the album).

    Every day, I read articles in the mainstream press about people who have suffered tragedies, and still managed to achieve something out of that experience (of course, we don’t hear about the people who dissolve under unbearable pressure, unless they go on to commit a crime).

    With ‘Forward’, two artists took extreme suffering (the accompanying video features the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, holding photographs of their murdered sons), and created one minute 19 seconds of exquisite art.

    Yanagihara took made up suffering and created 700+ pages of wallowing in shit.

  2. There’s a photo in this article (https://newrepublic.com/article/125267/year-literary-backlash) of someone with a tote bag with the four main characters’ names on it. The only word I can use to describe this is embarrassing; it’s like seeing someone at the supermarket in fetish gear, you want to tell them to keep it to themselves.

    It does appear that there are people out there who actually enjoy this book – the question then is how? why?

    I can understand getting caught up in it while reading (I was caught up in it myself) but viewed with any objectivity, after the fact, the plot and characterisation is unbelievable and unconvincing. Yanagihara herself cannot offer a coherent account of what she was trying to do with the book, and she fails at the different, contradictory, things she claims she was trying to achieve.

    Is the point where Willem stops sexually and physically abusing Jude really enough of a pay-off for everything that comes before, and after?

    I don’t believe there is any significant number of people actually getting sadistic pleasure from reading about Jude’s abuse.

    I guess there must be some kind of juvenile, narcissistic, sadomasochistic, wish-fulfilment pleasure to be gained from reading this book: Jude, and Jude’s suffering, is the centre of the universe; his friends arrange their lives around him, he is their main topic of conversation when he is not there, paintings of him hang in major art galleries. Jude thinks he is ugly and worthless, everyone else thinks he is beautiful and special. Jude’s suffering is so important, that there is no other suffering in the world, there are no wars, no humanitarian crises, no environmental disasters, no nuclear melt-downs, no school shootings, there isn’t even any bad weather shutting down transportation in New York City. I’m sure there are lots of people who can get an illicit vicarious thrill from imagining being that special.

  3. Last Sunday, I went looking for more negative reviews, and found plenty. It is a relief; I am not crazy, neither am I the only sane person in a crazy world. This book no longer has the same hold on me; it is grotesque, lurid, pointless, made-up garbage, and the protagonist is no longer a ‘real’ person, created to suffer, he is a cardboard cut-out.

    The review at The Mookse and the Gripes (http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2015/09/16/hanya-yanagihara-a-little-life/comment-page-1/) highlights how poor quality the writing is. Sarra Manning, reviewing the book for Red (http://www.redonline.co.uk/reviews/book-reviews/a-little-life-book-review#), apologises for recommending it to her friends before actually reading it herself, saying, “There are pages upon pages, whole chapters, of happenings, ponderings and even characters in A Little Life that have nothing to do with the story. It’s lacking in humour, historical context, and plausibility, and has some ugly things to say about consent and victimhood. It could also have been half the length and still been overwritten.” There is also a very good essay by Lydia Kiesling at The Millions (http://www.themillions.com/2015/06/two-lives-on-hanya-yanagihara-and-atticus-lish.html).

    The blog Me and My Big Mouth has a ‘social reading’ of A Little Life (part one here: http://meandmybigmouth.typepad.com/scottpack/2015/08/social-reading-a-little-life-first-impressions.html), which, in the posts and the comment threads, points out all the terrible ‘clunking’ language, the manipulation of the slow reveal of Jude’s abuse, and lots of plot and character flaws and inconsistencies. Particularly, that Jude would not be able to function academically and at work the way he does, with the level of mental illness and PTSD he is suffering from, and that Andy’s behaviour is not just enabling, it’s unethical.

    In an earlier draft, I wrote this about Jude’s childhood abuse, “is this some East Coast bigotry against the ‘fly-over’ states? Sure, that kind of thing goes on over there all the time.” This snobbery is commented on as well, pointing out something I’d forgotten, that Caleb is a New York outsider too.

    One commenter, Janet, says this about Jude’s leg injuries:

    “Regarding the legs? Preposterous. A made-up syndrome (unless it was purely psychological…that I’d believe). My brother had a horrific accident when he was twelve. It involved his legs. He had to have skin grafts, etc., and was in the hospital for months (better part of a year, if I remember correctly). The docs told him he would be susceptible to bone infection his entire life, but NEVER, EVER said it was an “insult to his [entire] body.” In fact, he’s had minor trouble during his life because of it, but he’s never had to curl up into a ball because of overall body pain. I know there is “suspension of disbelief” but this is another instance where that ability fails me.”

    “In the beginning of the novel, Jude has to swing his leg out to an almost 90 degree angle when he walks, indicating a problem with the hip joint. Miraculously, after his leg is amputated below the knee, this affliction disappears.”

    I had my doubts about the extremeness of Jude’s injuries, but I’m not a doctor, and Yanagihara’s father was, so I gave her the benefit of the doubt. I know that wounds can re-open, but to have that many, his legs must have been completely crushed. Could splinters of wood (from when he was beaten in the home with a broom handle after his failed attempt to run away) really cause that level of infection and scarring on his back?

    Something else I had forgotten, there is no explanation of exactly how Jude is rescued after being run over in the middle of nowhere – if his injuries were that bad, most likely he would have bled to death before being found. This tells me that Yanagihara was just making it all up as she went along, there is nothing remotely realistic about any of it.

    Michal Flick’s review at Good Reads is also worth reading (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1303804055). He takes issue with Yanagihara’s depiction of gay men, and gay male sexuality, as did some of the commenters in the thread underneath.

    This was also a recurring criticism in the discussion at Data Lounge (https://www.datalounge.com/thread/15715103–a-little-life-by-hanya-yanagihara)

    This is something else that didn’t make the final edit of my review, in an earlier draft I wrote of Willem’s claim that he wasn’t gay, he only loved Jude, that it was ‘slash/yaoi’ bullshit. I am in no position to throw stones here, I read this book because I thought it was about gay men, I would not have read a similar book about women unless it was from an author I already knew.

    Some of the commenters at Data Lounge describe the characters as ‘dolls’ and compare the writing to slash, and someone points out how infrequently gay men writing about gay men get mainstream awards.

    In one interview (https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/hanya-yanagihara/), it is reported that Yanagihara “told one young gay couple she knows not to have a child, but they did have one”, my immediate reaction to reading that was to think how is that any of her business, what right does she have to tell gay men how to live their lives? It comes across as incredibly intrusive (was her advice even solicited in the first place?). Apparently Yanagihara asked her gay friends to let her watch them having sex, then just went with watching porn instead. There’s reference to a Late Night with Seth Mayer’s episode, but the clip is no longer available, and it isn’t on YouTube that I can find – which is probably just as well, I don’t want to watch a straight woman and a straight man having a good laugh about gay sex. All of this intrusion treats gay men like public property, a side show; it’s all very unpleasant – would this book have had the same mainstream/literary success if it had contained explicit, consensual, pleasurable gay sex?

    Yanagihara’s take on gay sex is strange to say the least, ‘sex’ is anal penetration, and everything else is ‘foreplay’. We are supposed to believe that the ‘porn star moves’ (for want of a better descriptor) that Jude was taught as a child are somehow convincing when he is in an adult relationship (I can’t quite bring myself to describe it as a consensual relationship, given how afraid he was of saying ‘no’ to Willem). Willem doesn’t spot anything wrong (he describes Jude as ‘dextrous’ *puke*), which is ridiculous, unless Willem is so completely porn-sick he can’t even recognise genuine sexual pleasure (which is what I was talking about when I said it could be a satire on so-called ‘nice guys’ who turn out to be just as bad as the obvious predators).

    Also, something I only realised after reading Janet’s comments, Jude’s leg/hip/spine problems magically disappear during sex, and surely the scarring on his back would have reduced his mobility as well, since scar tissue is not as flexible as normal skin? Someone with Jude’s health problems (or a real-world equivalent of them), would actually have to talk about sex to make it feasible, but having them talk would have lost an opportunity for Yanagihara to torture Jude some more.

  4. I could pick almost any book I have read or film I have watched over the past few years, and argue how it’s better than A Little Life (I could pretty much pick at random: Mad Max: Fury Road has more interesting things to say about masculinity!).

    I read Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World a few months before A Little Life, and remember thinking at the time, as I read the first section, that A Little Life, was never going to compare, either in its depiction of the New York arts scene, or in the quality of the writing.

    There are two seasons of Looking if you want to watch a realistic story about a group of gay male friends.

    Mysterious Skin (the film, I have read the book it is based on, but too long ago to comment on it accurately), gives a realistic and sensitive portrayal of the after-effects of child sex abuse.

    A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, mixes reality with fairy tale far more skilfully, and while being rooted in real times and places. There are orphans, foundlings, rags-to-riches stories, doppelgangers, children whose parents are not their real parents, and even some conditional happy endings. The book also covers a changing Europe from the end of the Victorian era, to the aftermath of WWI; and it goes without saying that Byatt is a better writer than Yanagihara by an order of magnitude at least.

    Or how about the article I read this morning (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/13/david-wojnarowicz-close-to-the-knives-a-memoir-of-disintegration-artist-aids-activist), on David Wojnarowicz (there is overlap, he was friends with Peter Hujar, who took the photo used on the cover of the US edition of A Little Life), a real person, who experienced real suffering, a man who tried to change the world: compare and contrast with Yanagihara’s sanitised, insular, meaningless wallowing.

  5. Yanagihara is in the Antipodes for various literary things, which means there is a new slew of reviews and interviews. Yanagihara has also come up with a new excuse to attempt to justify her garbage book, and comes across as incredibly arrogant in the process.

    But to start, let’s recap: first it was about male emotions and male friendships, then it was about suffering (in isolation, not in any meaningful social context), then it was a fairy tale with clearly defined good and evil, then we needed to understand how complicated the child rapists and batterers were, then it was a treatise on mental health and suicide, then it was simply about Upsetting the Reader as an end in itself.

    In the Sydney Morning Herald Yanagihara is reported as saying, in her closing address to the Sydney Writers’ Festival:

    “When we say that a work of fiction is infected with gratuitous brutality, what are we really saying?

    “All brutality is gratuitous. There is no reason for it. But it is part of being human, and therefore it is the stuff of literature. For literature to ignore this, to try to conceal or avoid it, is an act of nothing less than artistic irresponsibility, a covering of the eyes and a silencing of the tongue because of some specious idea that there are certain territories into which fiction is not supposed to wander.

    “But it is not only the fiction writer’s right, but the fiction writer’s duty, to not just wander, but to march into those territories, to look at the putrefying ugliness of what humans can be – and then to report back. It is the least she can do.

    “Not because her art permits her to – but because her own humanity compels her to. Can’t art – and shouldn’t art – encourage us to imagine the human condition, even at, especially at, its cruellest and smallest?”

    This is so breathtakingly arrogant; Yanagihara believes she is performing some kind of public service, that she is acting morally, by foisting her made-up suffering on the world.

    In earlier interviews, Yanagihara has said that she wasn’t really interested in child abuse, that she didn’t research it, that she wanted everything exaggerated and “turned up a little too high”, it is clear that she never had any intension of writing realistically about the circumstances of child abuse, she was using it as a device to generate suffering, which is what she was really interested in.

    Can you imagine a novel, supposedly about the holocaust, where the author was completely open about the fact that they did no research on the historical circumstances that led to the rise of the Third Reich, or into any of the actual things that took place in the death-camps, and instead made it all up, just to focus on the psychological anguish of one survivor afterwards, in ahistorical isolation? It would never get a mainstream publisher, and it certainly wouldn’t be lauded as a great work of literature and given awards.

    We could take any kind of real-world violence and suffering, large or small scale, the genocide of Native Americans, or school shootings – any author wishing to tackle those subjects has to do so ethically and with respect. If someone wants to write about genocide in a fictional setting, their world building has to be watertight, otherwise it is just gratuitous, pointless violence. Yanagihara’s world building is shoddy and her character development is equally so.

    If an author is going to write about child sex abuse, they have a moral obligation to write about it ethically, not to use it for shock tactics or titillation. Everything about Jude is so contrived, so unrealistic and made-up, especially the circumstances of his abuse, that Yanagihara does not treat the subject with respect, it was a means to an end for her, she simply wanted to wallow in suffering.

    Rubbing the reader’s nose in meaningless, made-up suffering is worthless, it proves nothing, it tells us nothing.

    But even Yanagihara’s current accounting is inconsistent, here she says:

    “One of the things that I really did fight against with this book was the sense of subtlety. I wanted to go all the way to the limit of good taste. If it comes to wobbling over that line, then I wanted to be willing to wobble and not have it be seen as chilly or remote. I wanted it to be really maximalist, which is not typically how I am on the page, but I wanted to defy my own instincts.”

    She talks about a writer’s duty to report on the human experience on the one hand, then wanting to go to the limit of ‘good taste’ on the other – these things are not the same.

    For a sense of how completely lacking in self-awareness Yanagihara is, read this puff-piece interview here.

    When asked what things annoy her in writing, Yanagihara replies “In books in general I hate it when people rely on brand names to try to communicate something about a character, because it asks the reader to assume things about a character that the writer should be writing about herself.” This is the writer who listed the sources of the marble and wood for the bespoke bathrooms of her characters’ Manhattan apartments (among lots of other very expensive consumer purchases, a private jet is mentioned at one point) – her snobbery is showing again, her materialism and consumerism is ok.

    Also this: “I hate it when there is… I just hate sloppiness. Of language. There should be a sense that the writer has some sense of large schematic in mind. And if there are leaps made outside of that, then I think that should be done with confidence and I can always tell when that’s not happening.” Has she even read A Little Life once, all the way through?

    When asked about her favourite characters in fiction, Yanagihara replied “I loved Patrick Bateman in American Psycho

    There is a pertinent quote from Maya Angelou, “when someone shows you who they are believe them.”

    My theory is that A Little Life is nothing more than Yanagihara’s private sadistic fantasy, and she has been making excuses for it ever since – also, there is something supremely arrogant about dumping your barely-edited first draft on the public and claiming it to be a great and meaningful work of literature.

    Either that, or it will all turn out to be a hoax, a satire, the-book-and-author as a piece of performance art, a social experiment on a massive scale; Yanagihara is seeing how much bullshit the literary world will let her get away with, and the last laugh will be on all of us.

  6. I found another negative review of A Little Life this week, by accident; every time I find a new website of book reviews, whether it’s a literary journal or an individual’s blog, I am filled with a sense of dread when I scroll back to 2015, in case a review of A Little Life appears. I thought I was safe with Nina Allan’s blog, since she was reviewing SF and horror, it had temporarily slipped my mind that Yanagihara’s first book was SF.

    Allan writes:

    The whole ensemble would have been improved a millionfold by making everyone in it less offensively, less boringly rich. The easy accession to success, to wealth, to an entirely unconflicted symbiosis with the jet-setting, gourmet-fed, gorgeously housed capitalism of the highest-end American glossies robs the novel’s ongoing present of agency, tension or of anything more than a passing, disconsolate curiosity. Is this meant to be inspirational, allegorical, what?? It certainly isn’t cautionary – the text seems as at ease with its prevailing attitudes as do the characters that populate it. Everyone loves these guys. everyone knows them or wants to know them. Is this the American Way? For a tiny minority, maybe. But to put it in context for UK readers, how would you feel about a novel in which the four protagonists were a corporate lawyer who specialised in exonerating multinational corporations from allegations of environmental vandalism, an architect hell-bent on levelling large parts of the East End to make way for luxury apartment complexes, an artist who made it his life’s work to portray – uncritically – members of the economic elite, and – let’s say Jude Law? (No offence to JL but his persona as a cypher for Willem’s fits more or less exactly.)

    If you were me, you’d probably want to punch everyone in it. Moreover, the whole endeavour would be doomed to instant cultural irrelevance, not to say ridicule.

    It would have been so simple to make these guys ‘normal’, to introduce some genuine struggle and conflict into their lives. Not to do so seems one of the oddest authorial decisions I’ve ever encountered.

    The lack of any discernible story, conflict or point is not A Little Life‘s only problem, however. For me, the manner in which it is told – endless swathes of the most colourless, tedious form of exposition, punctuated by desultory minor episodes of what passes for action – is the most telling indication of what I’ll call first draft syndrome: the author telling herself what the novel is about (fine) and then forgetting to shape, refine, and above all prune, prune, PRUNE the damn thing into the form of an actual novel. The excess of padding in A Little Life could comfortably fill several king-sized (ideal for one of Malcolm’s boutique apartments in fact) sofas. ‘This happened, then that happened, then the other happened. Then Jude remembered he had a friend who had a private plane, so he wouldn’t be late for their reunion dinner in Paris after all’. Whatever.

    Some critics have commented on the novel’s atemporality, the fact that there’s precious little sense of place, no mention of politics, presidents, AIDS, 9/11, indeed anything that might have given A Little Life a greater cultural, geographical or sociological resonance, so I won’t repeat those observations here except to say amen.
    I could write a whole separate essay on the portrayal of women in A Little Life (or at least I could if I’d been arsed to take proper notes as I went along). I don’t think it would be unfair to state that women have been almost entirely erased from Yanagihara’s narrative. Where they do exist, women are either saintly helpmeets (Julia, Ana, Sophie) or comical walk-on lesbians. If the male homosexual relationship is the main focus of interest (one reviewer even refers to A Little Life as ‘the great gay novel’ – I think they’re completely wrong, I think A Little Life shoots as wide of the mark here as it does in other respects, but that discussion lies beyond the scope of this essay) that’s one thing, but it in no way explains why the novel goes in for such wholesale belittling of lesbians and lesbian relationships. ‘A certain kind of moustachioed lesbian’, ‘like a certain kind of lesbian couple’, ‘i knew it would only be a matter of time before you two ended up like a pair of old lesbians – the only thing missing is the cat’. I stress I’m quoting from memory here, but there really is a lot of stuff in precisely this vein, and I’m asking why??? I for one got roundly sick of it. Indeed the book seemed strewn with the kind of casual sexism that left me blinking in bemusement. I might not have noticed it so much, had the four central male characters been more interesting or more compellingly written. But they just weren’t.

    I obviously don’t agree with Allan’s praise for A Little Life’s psychological realism, or the idea that the relationship between Jude and Willem is touching, but I do appreciate the negative reviews.

  7. I just think goodness is more interesting […] Evil is constant. You can think of different ways to murder people, but you can do that at age five. But you have to be an adult to consciously, deliberately be good – and that’s complicated

    Toni Morrison

  8. A woman in her 20s with severe mental health problems stemming from childhood sexual abuse has been allowed to die under Dutch euthanasia laws after doctors claimed she was incurable. In a startling abdication of the psychiatrist’s responsibility to prevent suicide and, when necessary, to protect patients from themselves, this woman’s psychiatrist declared that “there was no prospect or hope for her”, effectively signing her death warrant. With psychiatrists like that, one might ask, who needs self-harm?

    According to papers released by the Dutch euthanasia commission, the woman, who had been sexually abused from the age of five to 15, had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anorexia and chronic depression. Despite “intensive therapy” resulting in some improvement in the woman’s mental state, doctors pronounced her incurable. There was, they said, “no major depression or other mood disorder which affected her thinking” and she was “totally competent” to make the decision to end her life, a judgment which seems to me at odds with their own diagnoses.

    This is a deeply distressing and disturbing case, but it is not an isolated one. The Netherlands has seen a marked increase in the number of psychiatric patients ending their lives under euthanasia laws. In 2010 there were two such deaths; last year the number had risen to 56. A study of 66 cases in which patients were killed for “psychiatric suffering” in the Netherlands between 2011 and 2014 revealed that 70% were women and that most had been diagnosed with personality disorders. Of those who died, 56% described social isolation and loneliness.

    I wonder what exactly the doctors meant when they pronounced this twenty-something woman, who had survived 10 years of sexual abuse, “incurable” and killed her. Certainly, she could not be “cured” of her experience. She would never be the same as somebody who had not lived through her particular trauma; we are all of us moulded by our experience.

    I wonder to what extent she found her diagnoses helpful. Some people do find such labels help them to recognise their “illness” as an entity distinct from themselves. (Though this is harder in the case of personality disorders.) But for others they serve to heighten feelings of shame and hopelessness, seeming to locate the problem within the individual as opposed to viewing mental distress as an understandable response to experience. It seems to me that anyone who has lived through 10 years of sexual abuse may benefit more from being listened to than labelled.

    But however we understand mental distress, there can be no doubt that it exists within a broader societal context. It is unarguable that factors such as properly funded services, welfare provision and decent housing have the greatest possible impact on an individual’s capacity, whatever their experience, to create a life that feels worth living. So too do societal attitudes. The stigma attached to mental ill health, and often to particular diagnoses – “schizos”, “borderlines” – is described by many people as being “worse than the illness itself”. The loneliness and isolation described by the 56% of those who opted for euthanasia on mental health grounds in the Dutch study, are not inevitable. They are the result of choices we make individually and as a society.

    According to Dutch psychiatrist, Paulan Stärcke, who has carried out euthanasia requests, psychiatrists are “too hesitant” about agreeing to euthanasia for patients with “psychiatric diseases”, something she describes as “an act of mercy”. Between 1939-41, a recorded 70,000 people (the actual figure is thought much higher) with “incurable” mental or physical illness were also sent to a “mercy death” (Gnadentod), as part of the Nazis’ forced euthanasia programme. Mercy, it seems, is a subjective concept.

    Clare Allan

    This is horrifying, especially given how young the woman is.

    I am pro euthanasia/assisted suicide, in the case of terminal illness (when it becomes a quality of death issue, rather than a quality of life issue), or extreme disability (e.g. quadriplegia). If someone had told me in the past that this was going to happen, I would have dismissed it as slippery-slope scaremongering.

    It feels like she is being thrown away as not worth the effort; what next, people with low IQs? The long-term unemployed?

    Also, it feels like a witness being bumped off, the same society that allowed her to be sexually abused for ten years, is now facilitating her suicide.

  9. “He even ordered a book about how victims of sexual abuse – a term he hated and didn’t apply to himself – dealt with sex,”

    I want to look at this particular line; it was a real ‘what the fuck?’ moment for me, even when I was first, uncritically, reading, and I think it encapsulates everything that is bad about this book – bad as in poorly conceived and executed, and bad as in morally dubious.

    The first, obvious question is, then how does Jude describe, to himself, the things that were done to him, in the monastery, the children’s home, the basement dungeon? The situations where there was obviously no ‘choice’.

    Victims of abuse often do blame themselves, and Jude could feel culpable for the abuse he suffered at the hands of Brother Luke, even if, as an already-abused and groomed nine year old, he was in no position to give informed or meaningful consent when he let Brother Luke abduct him. Also, Brother Luke never used physical force on him when he pimped him, he manipulated him emotionally into agreeing to such ‘work’.

    Surviving after escaping the children’s home, thorough survival prostitution (see note above), he could feel he had some kind of a ‘choice’, as a starving, homeless fourteen-year-old.

    But that still doesn’t explain the rest of it, had Yanagihara forgotten about those other parts of the plot when she wrote that line?

    Also, in the accounts of Jude’s time with Brother Luke, Jude (privately) does not agree when Brother Luke tells him he enjoys being raped, and he wishes someone would rescue him. If the whole point of Jude’s character is that he is trapped in the past and cannot change/heal, how did he go from wanting to be rescued to believing he was not a victim?

    Maybe it is just a throwaway line, barely thought about by Yanagihara when she wrote it, and never thought of again afterwards.

    As I have said already, if an author is going to write about a subject like child sex abuse, they have a moral obligation to write about it ethically and respectfully, not to use it for shock tactics or titillation, and not to use it to propagate harmful ideas about abuse victims, like the idea that they are culpable for the abuse they suffer.

    To write a line like that and not take any responsibility for it, is immoral, especially now that Yanagihara is claiming to be fulfilling some kind of authorial ‘duty’ with her portrayal of child abuse (that Yanagihara is making such claims about her writing, makes it legitimate for me to examine what she has written in such detail).

    Yanagihara has said in interviews that she does not believe in ‘talk therapy’; nothing about A Little Life proves her stance, if anything, this particular line proves the opposite, if Jude had received some kind of therapy after being rescued from Brother Luke, the idea that he was culpable could have been challenged before it took root.

    Maybe it’s supposed to be obvious that this belief is a product of Jude’s mental illness, but, if so, then the idea that he ’caused’ Caleb to become a sadistic abuser should also, obviously, not be true, but Yanagihara has said that she wrote it to be true within her fictional universe. So what other of Jude’s beliefs about himself are supposed to be true?

    There are several possible explanations for that line; either Yanagihara and her ineffectual editor could not keep track of the manuscript, or, this is Yanagihara pulling Jude around by the strings again, she doesn’t want him to heal, so she gives him a belief about himself that stops him healing, regardless of how convincing that is as character development, or, Yanagihara intended to write it as ‘true’ that Jude had a choice about being sexually abused, the same way she wrote it as ‘true’ that he really did cause Caleb to abuse him.

    It is very clear, from reading the book itself, and from what Yanagihara has said about it in earlier interviews, that she did not set out with the remit of writing a realistic, respectful, portrayal of child abuse; she set out to wring the maximum amount of suffering (for her own particular reasons, very specific types of suffering) from the main character.

  10. Stupid, stupid me, I went back to look again (and I feel physically sick from it again). I was curious how many times Yanagihara had actually used the word ‘rape’ in the whole book; it’s six times (in various forms), one of which is a joke about a flat looking like it had been “raped by the Grand Bazaar.”

    So I found this:

    “He remembers little of what followed. He was questioned again and again; he was taken to a doctor at a hospital who examined him and asked him how many times he had been raped, but he hadn’t been able to answer him: Had he been raped? He had agreed to this, to all of this; it had been his decision, and he had made it. “How many times have you had sex?” the doctor asked instead, and he said, “With brother Luke, or with the others?” and the doctor had said, “What others?” And after he had finished telling him, the doctor had turned away from him and put his face in his hands and then looked back at him and had opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out. And then he knew for certain that what he had been doing was wrong, and he felt so ashamed, so dirty that he wanted to die.”

    This is the extent of the ‘therapy’ Jude receives after he is rescued from Brother Luke, and before he is dumped in the children’s home to be abused some more.

    So the line I wrote about previously is not an accident, but it is still so poorly done. The doctor should have known he had been commercially sexually abused by multiple men before he spoke to him (how else did the police know of Jude’s existence in order to rescue him in the first place?). Also, specialist police and doctors have training in how to question child sex abuse victims, why was it handled so incompetently? (We know why.)

    Also this:

    “He had been a fool to follow Luke, he knew that. Luke had lied to him, he had done terrible things to him. But he wanted to believe that, through everything, in spite of everything, Luke really had loved him, that that part had been real; not a perversion, not a rationalisation, but real. […] Luke’s legacies were in everything he did, in everything he was […] Luke had taught him how to find pleasure in life, and he had removed pleasure absolutely. […] He thought of Luke when the two of them were falling in love, when he was being seduced and had been too much of a child, too naive, too lonely and desperate for affection to know it.”

    I had not even remembered any of this when I wrote before about Brother Luke being portrayed as Jude’s first ‘relationship’.

    It is sickening, and it is probably a very good account of how some child sex abuse victims process their experiences – if Yanagihara had stuck to this, instead of throwing everything else at Jude as well (you don’t need anything more than this to Upset the Reader), it could have been a much better, leaner book, a more honest, more powerful, more realistic, psychological study, rather than lurid, bloated torture porn.

  11. I hope I am being accurate and honest with my criticisms of A Little Life (it’s 700+ pages, I had forgotten things when I wrote my original review, there are probably other elements I have forgotten as well).

    Yanagihara has obviously gotten some things right with regards to the psychology of a groomed and abused child, but I still think, on balance, as a whole, it does not work.

    There are too many contrivances: Jude not being adopted to start with, there is a premium on healthy babies, and I can’t believe Jude not being unambiguously white (another unrealistic element anyway), would have been a barrier.

    The monastery is still the most obvious contrivance; I can see why Yanagihara did it, she wanted him to be orphaned, she wanted him to be isolated, unloved, and an easy target for grooming, but she also wanted him to be middle-class (middle-class children are unloved, groomed and exploited too, of course, but they tend to have more safeguards in place).

    Yanagihara could have had all the elements of the ‘relationship’ between Jude and Brother Luke in a more realistic setting; a poor neglected kid desperate for adult affection – but then she would have been re-writing Mysterious Skin without the UFOs.

    Jude’s constant refusal to do anything to help himself get better is contrived; Yanagihara said that she set out to write a character who wouldn’t get better, and that desire sabotaged any possibility of realistic character development.

    There is the over-the-top (or just made-up) nature of Jude’s physical injuries/disabilities as well, of course.

    And I still can’t work out what all the lavish wealth and success is supposed to be for, in terms of plot development, realism, or putting across a ‘message’.

    Finally, I still find the things Yanagihara has said, about her intensions regarding metal health and suicide, and also about Jude as a character (particularly in relation to Caleb) to be highly morally suspect.

  12. I am not accusing Yanagihara of being a paedophile apologist, I don’t think she is one; and what she does to Jude is not even as simple as victim blaming – it is the morally repugnant nature of creating a character and trapping him in that mind-set, all in the service of a narrative that in the end achieves so little (even if it had achieved what Yanagihara wanted it to achieve, it would still have achieved so little). It is the sheer pointlessness of the suffering, of Jude, and of the reader, that I find so objectionable (the occasional flashes of insight do not justify the whole).

    It is also the fact that Yanagihara has done everything backwards, in terms of plot and characterisation and world-building. She decided where she wanted her protagonist to end up (dead, after decades of physical and psychological torture) and contrived everything to get him there, instead of asking ‘what if?’, ‘what next?’ or ‘how would a real person behave in these circumstances?’.

    I resent Yanagihara for saying that some people’s lives (my life) are worth nothing – I don’t have Jude’s extravagant ‘compensations’, how can my life be worth anything? How can anyone’s?

    If Jude is in any way a ‘real’ person, Yanagihara is his merciless torturer and executioner. The brutality and the cruelty and the sadism are all hers.

    “In the end, her novel is little more than a machine designed to produce negative emotions for the reader to wallow in […] The abuse that Yanagihara heaps on her protagonist is neither just from a human point of view nor necessary from an artistic one”

    Daniel Mendelsohn

  13. So I am back again, with what I hope is a final attempt at an exorcism.

    The childhood sexual abuse does destroy Jude, and it is that leaner story within the bloated whole that I need to go back to. I do want my criticisms to be honest and accurate. I still maintain that the adulthood sections are ridiculously contrived, poorly written, and unrealistic, and that the original contrivance of the monastery is ridiculous too; also that what Yanagihara has said she was trying to achieve with the whole is morally suspect – but. But, the sections about the childhood abuse, I need to examine again, to see if there is any ‘truth’ in them or not, to see how much Jude is a puppet or not.

    It isn’t so much that Yanagihara has the childhood sexual abuse make Jude gay, she has it make him a ‘whore’, someone for whom sex can only be transactional, commodified, ‘work’, someone who is permanently ‘unclean’ (this is all an ideology I find morally repugnant, and do not agree with in any way, shape or form). Jude finds sex humiliating, but he trades it for ‘intimacy’ in adulthood, first with Caleb (another daft contrivance, Yanagihara tells us that Jude is feeling lonely, just before Caleb turns up, and somehow, in spite of how beautiful and brilliant Jude is supposed to be, Caleb is the first person to ask), then with Willem.

    There are two elements to Jude’s childhood sexual abuse, Jude’s belief that he ‘chose’ the abuse, which makes him permanently unclean, and his need to ‘believe in’ Brother Luke, which stops him being able to fully see that he was being used and manipulated.

    Why would Jude choose to believe that he is an ‘unclean whore’ born to be used, undeserving of a normal life, rather than a victim of childhood sexual abuse? How is being a victim worse than being ‘unclean’?

    There is a contradiction here, he chose it, but he was also born for it, destined for it. Of course, this could just be the mental illness talking, but it is difficult to pin-point exactly what it is that is trapping him – if he really was born worthless, as he seems to believe, then nothing is going to work no matter what he does.

    Does he need to ‘believe in’ Brother Luke, because Brother Luke ‘loved’ him, even though Brother Luke ‘knew’ he was ‘unclean’? But Jude does understand that Luke did these things to him (“Luke had taught him how to find pleasure in life, and he had removed pleasure absolutely”), but still believes also, that he is, somehow, ‘born for it’, because Brother Luke and the johns told him so, even though he doesn’t enjoy it, ever.

    This is another contrivance, Jude is supposed to be a highly intelligent, analytical adult, he studies the law and mathematics; surely, in adulthood, he would be able to look back and recognise how helpless and manipulated he was as a child? Is it really that difficult to look back and see how obviously vulnerable and manipulated and victimised he was? Is it realistic to have a character who’s thinking about himself hasn’t changed since he was nine? Is it realistic to have a qualified lawyer who has no awareness of age of consent laws?

    Why cling on to the idea that he had a ‘choice’ so much? It is tied in with his need to believe that Brother Luke really did love him, even when he can acknowledge how toxic that is. This is where the contrivance of the monastery comes back into play, he was completely abandoned and unwanted by everyone (not just by his biological mother, but by society itself, which abandoned him in the unreality of the monastery), except Brother Luke. Giving up on Brother Luke would mean losing any foundation of self he has, since he was the only person who cared about him for the whole of his childhood.

    Or appeared to care for him. While Yanagihara finds it important for us to know about Brother Luke’s other ‘good qualities’, she doesn’t seem so interested in Brother Luke’s delusions – of course, lots of rapists do believe that their victims wanted it and asked for it, but Brother Luke sees Jude in pain, sees him crying, and hiding under the bed, sees him disassociating while he is being raped, he knows he needs to control him, so he teaches him to self-harm – you’d think such self-delusion would be difficult to maintain constantly over three or four years.

    Again I am drawn back to the fact that Yanagihara has said she doesn’t believe in talk-therapy, so she keeps Jude from it, when every toxic thing he believes about himself absolutely screams out the need for a therapeutic remedy, an intervention to separate his self from Brother Luke, and to then be able to see that he had no choice, that he was never in a situation where he had a choice.

    When Jude says he did those things ‘freely’ (‘having sex’ with Brother Luke’s ‘clients’ and the men on the road after he escapes the children’s home), it’s hard to know what ‘unfree’ would actually look like to him. It is a ruthless definition of ‘freedom’, he doesn’t even believe that Dr Traylor is raping him, while he holds him captive in his basement and threatens to cave in his head with a poker – he thinks he owes him for the meals and antibiotics while he was in his custody.

    Early on, while Jude is being pimped out, Brother Luke tells him he’s “good at it”, and “it’s nothing to be ashamed of.” But Jude knows that there is something shameful about it. Yanagihara describes how he is worn down and manipulated into ‘agreeing’ to Brother Luke’s demands, but Jude still sees it as a free ‘choice’, in childhood and adulthood. Four months in, when Brother Luke asks Jude if he loves him, he is conflicted, he still believes the fiction Brother Luke has manipulated him with, even though “something else told him that he shouldn’t love Brother Luke, that the brother had done something to him that was wrong. But he hadn’t. He had volunteered for this, after all; it was for the cabin in the woods, where he would have his own sleeping loft, that he was doing this. And so he told the brother he did.”

    A few years later, when he understands that there is never going to be a cabin in the woods, he still clings to the idea that it was his ‘choice’; even in adulthood, he clings to this idea, even though that makes him ‘unclean’.

    When Brother Luke tells him they will get married and have a son together when Jude turns sixteen, Jude tells himself he will never let that happen, because he knows that Brother Luke would do to that boy what he had done to Jude. This means Jude understood that what was done to him was not right, that nobody deserves that, or was born for that, but Jude still believes that he himself was; why? How can he be ‘born for it’ when nobody else is? It also shows that he understands that Brother Luke will lose interest in him when he gets too old for his tastes, something else that should tell him he is only being used.

    In adulthood, Jude thinks to himself: “Not having sex: it was one of the best things about being an adult.” Which seems a tacit acknowledgment of his lack of choice as a child. On the road, after escaping the children’s home, he thinks: “Sometimes he felt the shame of what he was doing so intensely he wanted to vomit: he knew he would never be able to claim to himself that he had been coerced; he’d had sex with these men freely, he had let them do whatever they wanted, he had performed enthusiastically and well. And sometimes he was unsentimental; he was doing what he had to do. There was no other way. This was his skill, his one great skill, and he was using it to get somewhere better. He was using himself to save himself.”

    This one paragraph is so maddeningly contradictory, he hates it, he chose it, he’s good at it, there’s no other way (no other choice), he’s saving himself (from what, if he has a choice?), he’s escaping to somewhere better, somewhere he doesn’t have to ‘have sex’ all the time (but if that’s all he’s good for, how can he escape it?).

    It is not impossible that a real person, who had been groomed, manipulated and abused the way Jude was, would believe any of the things Yanagihara has Jude believe about himself, but to believe all of them, all at once, for ever? I don’t know; Jude is not even a rat in a maze, because he has no choices, Yanagihara has Jude tied up and trapped completely.

    Yanagihara is still pulling Jude around by the strings; at the community college he attends as well as school while at the children’s home, a professor asks him about his plans for the future, and says he could help him get into an excellent college, but Jude thinks this help will come at a cost, so says no, even though a part of him says “one more [‘client’] won’t hurt you,” so an early way out is avoided, and Jude is set on his way to Doctor Traylor’s basement dungeon.

    Yanagihara has devised the perfect torture device, the perfect set of contrivances, to annihilate a human being, but does that say anything profound about the human condition?

    None of it is actually about the horrific things predatory men do to helpless little boys in the real world, it is only about one little boy, being annihilated, and that is all Yanagihara’s own work.

  14. One recent article intimated that A Little Life could be made into a TV series. Since Yanagihara herself, having made multiple, contradictory claims, cannot decide what the story is actually about, we will have to wait and see what the show makers decide it is about.

    Judging by the relevant tags on tumblr, the main attraction to the book’s fans seems to be the sentimental guff about friendship in the adulthood sections of the book (as if a few quotable lines could justify the rest of it!).

    TV shows are written by committee, even if Yanagihara is involved, she won’t be given a free reign like she had with the book, there is too much money at stake with a TV show. TV adaptations are also good at taking the best bits from the original source, and improving on them, and at smoothing away the rough edges, to make something better than the original (True Blood springs most readily to mind). On the other hand, it would be very easy to do very badly, too sentimental, too repetitive, taking too much dialogue and too many plot points from the source.

    My best guess is that it will concentrate on the adulthood sections of the book – the art galleries, the architecture, the ‘lifestyle porn’, Willem’s Hollywood career, Jude’s legal career – and the self harm and flash-backs of child rape will be discretely shown (you can’t show four solid hours of child rape and self mutilation, no mainstream audience would watch it and no TV channel would pay for it), and if they show Jude and Willem having sex at all, that will be done discretely too, otherwise risk turning into a side show. It will be a standard, conventional, glossy story about the adult success of four college friends, but one of them will have a dark secret from his past.

    But who knows? Maybe it will tackle the abuse head-on; a scene of Jude, in the shower with Willem, with a thousand-yard stare, cutting back to nine-year-old Jude in the shower with Brother Luke, or close-ups of adult self-harming intercut with scenes of child rape, just to hammer the point home.

    But to do full justice to A Little Life, in all its bloated, lurid, sadistic glory, would require a full-on, old school, Cronenberg body-horror treatment. Let’s show those warty furrows and foetal mouths; let’s have an animatronic hyena (animatronic, not CGI, it needs to be visceral, like the talking bug/anus/typewriter things in Naked Lunch) follow Jude around all day like one of Philip Pullman’s daemons, telling Jude he’s a worthless, dirty, whore. Let’s see Jude cut himself and mud and centipedes ooze and wriggle out; let’s see sewerage and slaughterhouse effluent seep up through the “silvery, stripey marble … from a small quarry outside Izmir” and the “cypress sourced from Gifu”; let’s see Harold, or Willem or Caleb (or all three, since it’s all about extremes and bad taste) split his skin to reveal Brother Luke underneath; let’s have the actor playing Jude starve himself down like Christian Bale did for The Machinist; let’s see Jude, grinding away like a porn star, while the scars on his back pulse like some alien parasite.

    You want gratuitous brutality? Here’s your gratuitous brutality, the very existence of the story itself.

  15. As I quoted from Maya Angelou already, “when someone shows you who they are believe them.”

  16. Found another account of Yanagihara’s snobbery:

    I really hate the way the author elides around the fact that they’re at HARVARD, until you finally puzzle it out from “the Square” and roommates who attend MIT, etc. The “H Word” is, eventually, used, but it goes unsaid that Jude attended HARVARD LAW and was on the HARVARD LAW REVIEW, and the whole side-skippy thing around the fact of HARVARD made me nuts. Then again, when I was young and dumb in San Francisco, I managed to get a guy to go out on a reluctant date with me, and as I made nervous small talk with him, asking him where he went to college, he looked around the restaurant as if he’d rather be sitting with anyone else, and said tersely, “Connecticut.” I knew that Yale existed, but fuck all if I knew (or remembered (or cared for that matter)) that it was in Connecticut, so I just said, “Oh,” and left it at that. The way he said it, as if “one should know” what that meant…and it was only some time later that someone revealed to me that he meant YALE. It was my first real encounter with the awful power of meritocratic snobbery, the whole old-school-tie-waving secret language and false modesty which was probably why this whole I WON’T SAY HARVARD OUT LOUD thing made me grit my teeth.

    https://bradvanceauthor.com/2016/03/30/why-a-little-life-is-not-a-gay-novel/

  17. I totally empathize with your compulsion to prove this book wrong and I love how much detail you put into doing so. Aside from the torture porn and the lifestyle porn, another aspect of the book that made me a little nuts is the implausibility that Jude would have three close friendships in college that survive college, without him having opened up to them about anything. His reticence to share anything about his early life would make people turn away rather than turn them into lifelong friends. In the hyper-confessional stages of late teens/early 20s someone who doesn’t share their past is unlikely to develop close bonds with anyone, unless he has something else to give that makes up for being a cipher. I guess Yanagihara missed the opportunity for Jude’s college buddies to rape him for four years.

  18. Hello Thomas, and thank you so much for your comment!

    I read in one review (I can’t remember which one), that Jude’s ability to get everyone through their maths exams may have played a big role in him having any friends at all. But yes, it is a big problem (one of many), we are told repeatedly, how brilliant and beautiful Jude is, but we’re never really shown it.

    The whole relationship between Willem and Jude is just … You’d think Jude would react with horror at being propositioned, given his recent experience with Caleb, his ongoing underlying fear of Harold turning out to be an abuser, and the way he reacts towards the end of the book when JB tries to kiss him.

  19. I should link to Thomas’ review of A Little Life (https://hogglestock.com/2015/10/24/i-didnt-want-to-hate-this-book/), it was nice to see someone else pick up on the implausibility of the monastery with the same level of detail I did.

    Also, the blog post I linked to previously (https://bradvanceauthor.com/2016/03/30/why-a-little-life-is-not-a-gay-novel/) said some of the same things I’ve been saying about Jude’s (lack of) sexuality.

    As I have said already, it’s good to know I’m not the only sane person in a crazy world!

  20. This book review illustrates the right way to do a modern fairy tale (it’s described as a ‘horror parable’, but that’s pretty much the same thing):

    “We never get the full stories of these scandals, but then, we know them without being told. They are – and this is the point – all too familiar. […] If all this sounds heavy-handed, it is. Wood takes apart the mentality of patriarchy not with a scalpel, but an axe. However, the axe cuts deep. The often simplistic characterisation is not an error, but a strategy. This is not psychological fiction but a horror parable; a portrait not of people, but of tendencies. Seen as mythical archetypes, the characters are only too frighteningly real.”

    It doesn’t matter that the set up isn’t ‘real’, as in, it hasn’t happened and isn’t likely to happen, if it works as well as the reviewer believes, it still tells us something about the human experience.

    A Little Life doesn’t work as a fairy tale; nothing about it when I read it suggested a fairy tale. ‘It’s a fairy tale’ seems to be a catch-all excuse for all the shoddy world-building, plotting and characterisation.

    The protagonists in fairy tales undergo quests and tasks and ordeals, but they are active subjects, they get by through bravery, intelligence, hard work, good luck, being kind to others and others being kind to them.

    Jude is entirely passive and lacking in agency throughout his childhood (no sane person would suggest he had any kind of choice at nine years old, when he went with Brother Luke and ‘agreed’ to be pimped out by him); there are passive characters in fairy tales, for example Sleeping Beauty, but she isn’t really the protagonist, she’s the prize won by the prince, who is the real protagonist. Jude is passive as a teenager, except for when he runs away from the children’s home, but he is passive again after that, at the mercy of the men who abuse him – unless Yanagihara really is trying to tell us that Jude survived through his ‘skill’ as a ‘whore’ – which is too awful a possibility to contemplate.

    (It should be obvious, but just in case: no one is a ‘whore’, no one is born one, and no one becomes one, no matter how many times they are commercially raped. ‘Whores’ do not exist, it is a slur created by men to continue harming the women and children they have already harmed.)

    Even if we judge it as a fairy tale, none of the elements in it really work as such; if Ana and Andy and Harold and Julia are meant to be fairy godmothers bestowing gifts, they are all too late, the gifts are supposed to protect the protagonist from harm, not try and fail to put the pieces back together again afterwards. If Willem is the prize, the reward for suffering, then snatching him away betrays the basic structure of fairy tales, by denying the ‘happy ever after’.

  21. Another example of the shoddy world building of A Little Life is it’s use of Catholicism. I have already covered how unrealistic Jude’s placement in the monastery is (and him surviving past infanthood if he was), but also, the monastery itself is so sketchily drawn, it never comes across as a religious community; there is no real sense of what the monks are doing with themselves all day (apart from abusing Jude, that is).

    There are brief references that make it sound more like a farm than a monastery (accurate for middle age Europe perhaps, but not so much for a modern Franciscan order, see below), but again, it is sketchy at best. We are told at one point that Jude knows how to help birth calves, that’s quite a big omission from previous descriptions of the monastery/farm, given that diary farming/cattle ranching are full time occupations, and, really, given the size of a cow, how much help could a child under the age of nine really be? Not just birthing calves, but also how to bale hay (a ridiculously time consuming feat by hand, I’m assuming the monks didn’t let a small boy operate heavy farm machinery), and how to “test a watermelon, an apple, a squash, a muskmelon for freshness by thunking it in the right spot” (one needs to ‘thunk’ an apple? Who knew?) – That all sounds like quite a big farm, how did they find the time for all this plus lessons, plus prayer? And how come none of this heavy farm labour is shown in the flashbacks, only mentioned in passing later on?

    Communal prayer is only mentioned once, and that is saying grace before a meal, and Jude prays before going to bed, but you don’t need to join a monastery to get that.

    Also, the demographic of the monks, they all seem to have degrees in useful subjects like mathematics and Greek and English Literature, and to be excellent teachers, even though teaching is a skill in its own right that requires more than just knowledge of the subject. Are we really supposed to believe that the main demographic for recruitment to Franciscan orders is middle-class men with degrees? Did Yanagihara get Franciscans confused with Jesuits? Did she even care?

    A google search for “life as a Franciscan monk” gave me these two websites on the first page:

    http://www.capgb.org/about-us/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-friar
    http://franciscanfriars.com/cfr-mission/prayer-life/

    Notice both give a timetable heavily filled with prayer and meditation; also, they are quite involved with the outside world, ministering to the sick and the poor is an integral part of what they do (I have already noted how false it sounds when they complain about how much it costs to look after Jude).

    I looked up the US Franciscan order (https://usfranciscans.org/) and it is exactly the same (except they have hashtags and an email newsletter!): “The Gospel life of the Friars Minor, as Francis describes in our Rule, has four central components: first, to be men of prayer, “desiring above all things to have the Spirit of the Lord and its holy operation;” second, to live as lesser ones, “not making anything our own,” but serving the Lord in poverty and humility; third, to create a brotherhood of mutual care among ourselves, “showing we are members of the same family;” and fourth, to “go about the world” entering people’s everyday lives as heralds of God’s reign and agents of Gospel peace.”

    I even put “South Dakota monastery” into google, the first hit is a former Benedictine monastery, now a not-for-profit Christian retreat (it couldn’t be that, refigured, Benedictines are the ones who practice silence!), the next five are all for orders of Benedictine Sisters, then, an order of Benedictine monks (Assumption Abbey), and while they do appear to do small scale farming/gardening, the abbey is on the edge of a town and has a visitor centre!

    The idea of an isolated order of some sort, not Franciscan (but then why give Jude the last name St Francis?), not Benedictine, not with a website or visitor centre, out in the middle of nowhere in South Dakota is not completely 100% impossible, but not at all likely either.

    This is what I mean about doing everything backwards, A Little Life’s monastery/farm didn’t exist until Jude was abandoned there, Yanagihara built it up around him as part of her elaborate torture device.

    It is obvious that Yanagihara did not ask what it would be like for a child to be raised in a monastery, she asked how she could get a child into a situation where they were completely alone, completely vulnerable, and could be abused with impunity (while still getting a middle class education).

    It’s also pretty obvious that Yanagihara didn’t do more than the most cursory research before writing the monastery/farm, the arrogance of that is staggering – forget Upsetting the Reader, this is Insulting the Reader’s Intelligence.

    There is also no real sense that Jude ever had any Catholic faith; it is not so much that he had lost or abandoned his faith in adulthood (which would be entirely reasonable), but that he never had any in the first place. The monks managed to teach him Greek and opera and needlepoint, but somehow forgot to indoctrinate him properly into their religion.

    “God” appears 76 times in the text, mostly it is just the secular (uncapitalised) “oh god” or “thank god”. We are told that as a child Jude is expected by the monks to be grateful to God (capitalised), for being taken in by the monastery, and that it was God’s will for him to be there (this is before the sexual abuse and him being regularly beaten unconscious started).

    There is one tangential reference to God (capitalised), when Jude is talking to Harold about the adoption; he thinks back to a time he confessed to Brother Luke that he had difficulty believing in God, but as far as I can remember (and tell via text searches), there is no other reference to Brother Luke keeping up Jude’s religious education.

    There are four references to him praying: one while he is with Brother Luke and wishing to be rescued, one when he is in Dr Traylor’s basement, and another when he thinks he is about to be killed by Dr Traylor (and this in relation to a story about an angel of death that doesn’t sound remotely Canonical). In adulthood, after Caleb has almost killed him, Jude prays “to a god [non-capitalised] he didn’t believe in, and hadn’t for years.” (Shouldn’t that be decades? Jude is in his forties by that point.)

    But telling isn’t the same as showing; the prayer is generic, little kids with only the most haphazard of religious upbringings can still pray to God (I was raised without religion and I still find myself pleading to an unspecified something on occasions). Jude was raised in complete isolation within a monastery, a Catholic community, First Communion takes place before the age of nine, when Jude was abducted by Brother Luke, he should have been fully indoctrinated by then.

    There are three references to the bible, two of those from his childhood, about pressed flowers between the pages (which you would have though one of the brothers would have noticed and disapproved of), and the third when he reflects in adulthood that “He knew – as much as he didn’t care to – large parts of the Bible almost by memory.” (Almost by memory!)

    There is one reference to St Jude, when Willem gives Harold and Julia a statue of St Jude, and Jude remembers the story of St Jude, and praying to St Jude as a child. “Jesus” appears 19 times, all of them people other than Jude cursing.

    I happened to read this article on end of life care recently (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/11/the-work-of-a-hospice-nurse), which contains this paragraph:

    “Heather thought that religious people for the most part were more accepting of death than others. Then again, Christians sometimes felt, guiltily, that they ought to endure their suffering without complaint, or even embrace it. One Catholic woman said to Heather, After all that Christ went through, the persecution and the Crucifixion, why can’t I cope with this cancer? Why can’t I love my suffering if it was given to me by God? Heather told the woman it was O.K. not to love her suffering, but she didn’t convince her.”

    At no point, as a child or adult, does Jude contemplate his suffering in relation to scripture (that word appears zero times), in relation to God’s plans or Jesus’ suffering; Catholicism is his whole life until the age of nine, at least, but he never questions why God is making him suffer like he does, and he never turns to the Bible for comfort or answers, even as a child.

    Also, he never contemplates his sexual abuse in relation to Catholicism (“sin” appears once in the book, when Ana tells Jude “you can always call me if you want to talk sin.”). Even if he was naive enough to not realise that what the brothers in the monastery were doing to him was ‘sex’ (which is plausible) he knows what it is after being pimped out by Brother Luke; surely he’d be aware of all the sections of the Bible condemning homosexuality, or the idea of sex as sacred/sinful? He considers himself to be ‘unclean’, but never in the eyes of God (what about all the New Testament stuff about redemption and forgiveness, what about Mary Magdalene?). Also, he never questions when Brother Luke says they are going to get married when he’s an adult.

    Jude is completely naive and under Brother Luke’s control as a child, the idea that he would choose to reject his religion at that point, when he is unable to question anything else, is not very realistic (if he could challenge the authority of God, he could challenge the authority of Brother Luke).

    There is one relevant mention of ‘faith’ when Jude thinks back to his first year at college “when it seemed that everything might be improved upon, and that his future self might be something bright and clean, when he knew so little but had such hope, and faith that his hope might one day be rewarded.” But Yanagihara never really shows us when or how Jude loses his Catholic faith (because she never really shows us that he has it in the first place), when he fears that God has forsaken him, or when he realises that all the bad things that have happened to him mean that God can’t exist – that should be quite an important moment in the development of any character, especially one raised in a monastery.

    Just to be certain, I also searched the text for: ‘heaven’ (one mention, when he is in the hospital after being run over by Dr Traylor), ‘hell’ (a few ‘what the hell’ type secular uses, from Greek myth, and Ana saying Jude’s abusers belonged in hell), and ‘Catholic’ (nothing important).

    Of course, you can come up with all kinds of silly excuses for this, and every other shoddy thing: it’s all set in a parallel reality where New York is in a constant ahistorical state of now, where the Gulf wars and 9/11 and everything that followed never happened, while the rest of the US is still in the 1950s, but with full wireless internet access, and the Catholic church has fully embraced gay marriage (and where an apple is a type of gourd, and navy blue is a bright shade of blue). Yup, that’s some first class world-building going on there!

  22. I had another ‘what the fuck?’ moment while searching through the text for my previous comment.

    Ana tells Jude “You may have something to thank Brother Luke for after all”, in regards to his education (and isn’t that another daft contrivance, that Brother Luke was such an amazing teacher in so many different subjects?).

    Is that really something a social worker (or any competent adult) would say in those circumstances? I know the ‘good paedophile’ is an interest of Yanagihara’s, but would anyone else really try to suggest it was an acceptable payoff?

    We are told “After he had come to trust Ana, [Jude] told her a few things about Brother Luke. But he was unwilling to tell her everything. He told no one. […] He didn’t think he could take Ana saying, as she said of the others, “He was a monster, Jude. They say they love you, but they say that so they can manipulate you, don’t you see? This is what pedophiles do; this is how they prey on children.”” (Who else was telling Jude he loved him? Not the other monks, not the johns on the road, certainly not Dr Traylor.)

    But obviously, Ana would know what happened; we are told that she has read Jude’s records from the children’s home, and that in the hospital “he had woken, lucid, and answered all her questions, not only about what had happened that night but in the years before it as well – but he honestly didn’t remember this at all.” So she would have know that Brother Luke manipulated and pimped and raped him.

    Obviously too, she should know that abuse victims, especially children, can have complicated emotional attachments to their abusers, so just calling their abusers monsters isn’t going to work (she should know to try to talk to him about Brother Luke).

    Ana has had a level of incompetence written into her in order to keep Jude psychologically trapped, he gets just enough help to move him on to the next stage in the plot.

    And really, how would anyone, adult or child, who had been through something like that (being locked up in a basement and raped for months, then almost killed and left with life-changing injuries), not get some kind of psychiatric referral automatically? The idea that he would simply be left to get on with it, with no one but a social worker to talk to (and nobody after she dies) is ridiculous.

    The whole thing is ridiculous.

  23. Looking back again at what Yanagihara had written about Caleb’s violence (ie that he has friends and family he gets on with so he isn’t ‘naturally’ violent, as if abusers are all recognisable monsters from the get-go), it could simply be that she is clueless about how domestic/intimate partner violence operates in the real world (she seems to be clueless about how a lot of things operate in the real world).

    Of course lots of violent men, are, to the larger world, ‘nice guys’ who have friends and family and colleagues who will stand up for them as ‘nice guys’ and vilify their victims (see, for example, Johnny Depp).

    But this doesn’t really matter, I am judging the shoddy parallel reality of A Little Life in its own right, and, from what Yanagihara has said (in the Electric Literature interview) it is very strongly implied that she wrote it to be ‘true’ that Jude caused Caleb to be violent, and that is still morally grotesque.

    And, as I have repeatedly said, it tells us nothing useful about the real world. I don’t know why Yanagihara has decided to come out with such grandiose claims about her book, when it is very clear, from reading A Little Life, and from the earlier things she said about it, that she set out to create a character, and to make him suffer, the suffering was the point, and the only point.

  24. The daftest thing about the monastery is that if they hated and resented Jude so much, they could have called child protection services at any time to come and take him back (at least, until they set his hand on fire and started repeatedly raping him and beating him unconscious).

    In real life, a child who is a ward of the state has a pot of funding assigned to them, so even if, by some ridiculous contrivance, a new born baby was handed over to a monastery that was not set up to care for children (as opposed to one of the half dozen orders of nuns in the same state), and this order dedicated to living in poverty and ministering to the sick and the poor and the needy was so money grubbing that it cared how much money it cost to look after one child, they would have been paid for it!

    The whole thing is nonsensical.

  25. I had hoped to walk away from this garbage book, but it looks like the world won’t let me.

    Yanagihara has curated “an exhibition of 12 photographers whose work expresses ‘the perennial mystery of being alive’”, so her name was on the front page of the Guardian website earlier this week.

    It’s ridiculous really, there are literally hundreds of other writers out there who have more insight and compassion than Yanagihara, but for some reason, her sad, sick, shoddy fantasy has led her to be seen as someone with a meaningful opinion.

    The first review I found (and I can’t be bothered to read more than one) says “the resulting exhibition … doesn’t offer many surprises … Yanagihara’s exhibition has a literary bent that gives the works a minor new spin … It’s a serviceable, if broad, premise, though not quite as free as one would expect from an outsider set loose in a trove of major works. In many ways, the result feels like the works are selected simply to illustrate themes … As such, the exhibition sometimes feels like a collection of writer’s prompts.”

    That sounds about right, superficially interesting, but nothing really meaningful going on underneath.

  26. The problem with A Little Life is that, in spite of her grandiose and revisionist claims to the contrary, Yanagihara has no interest in the real lives of real people in the real world, and the imaginary world she made up to accommodate the things she is interested in is so poorly done it is neither meaningful nor compelling (made-up worlds can, of course, be meaningful and compelling, see, for example, Ursula K Le Guin, Marge Piercy, Samuel R Delany and Geoff Ryman).

    Yanagihara is not interested in the social conditions that allow predatory men to groom and abuse children with impunity, so she made something up.

    She is not interested in what life in a Catholic order is actually like, so she made that up too.

    She is not interested in what it is like to have and lose religious faith, so she didn’t even bother trying with that one.

    She is not interested in what it is really like to be poor, so Jude and Willem are only poor for a short time, and then they become very successful and rich with no real difficulties or failures or setbacks; Jude is also given a free private physician, to avoid any messy reality creeping in.

    Yanagihara is not interested in what it is really like to be disabled, so she gave Jude a made-up condition, that somehow, despite him being in constant pain, never impedes his high-flying legal career, and again, he has that free private physician.

    Yanagihara is not interested in the real difficulties and complexities and compromises of adult friendships, so we get the whole world revolving around Jude.

    She is not interested in the real world dynamics of intimate partner violence, so we get Caleb, a ‘nice guy’ Jude turns into a monster, who then conveniently disappears once he has done his job of torturing Jude.

    Yanagihara is not interested in what the lives and relationships of gay men are really like, so instead we get Willem and Jude, an essentially straight man, and a man so damaged by childhood sexual abuse, he believes he can never have a ‘normal’ relationship (which means a relationship with a woman).

    Yanagihara claims to be interested in the emotions of men, but Jude is so utterly feminised – he is physically crippled, sexually castrated, he spends his free time cooking and cleaning and cutting himself, he is constantly apologising – that we learn nothing.

    It is obvious that the only thing that Yanagihara is interested in is (to borrow Mendelsohn’s term again), abjection, and Jude is nothing but a wretched puppet, created to suffer and die.

  27. I read a book review recently that really struck me, because everything that the reviewer praises about the book is practically the exact opposite of A Little Life:

    You know you’re in the presence of properly great fiction writing when you forget to question a single word of it. “This happened,” the author declares – and that’s it, you’re there, the book in your hand suddenly so much more urgent and alive than the world around you. Absolute narrative authority is a rare commodity, hard to unwrap and (I would argue) near impossible to teach. So what a joy to stumble across it here – along with prose of such exquisite precision and intensity – in this Dutch writer’s sixth novel. […]

    Given the novel’s length (a mere 128 pages of such power that I can’t quite bring myself to call it a novella), I’m disinclined to reveal more. But what follows is an examination of the ageing male heart – a dissection as subtle and tender as it is, ultimately, unnerving. For this is a wonderfully disconcerting piece of work which, on a second and even a third reading, only seems to grow more expansive and multifaceted while managing at the same time to remain mysterious and tightly furled.

    The stuff of virology is robustly well drawn, all of it crucial and convincing. Seemingly minor characters creep up on you. Ruth’s feckless sponger of a brother who doesn’t inoculate his five-year-old son because “he has the right to go through the childhood illnesses” is a comic portrayal that strikes a bleak chill into your bones, but ends up earning its narrative keep in a way that is as apt as it is startling.

    Meanwhile, the evocations of sex, bodies, appetites and desires are reminiscent of Updike at his very best […] Ultimately, though, it’s Wieringa’s relentless, sometimes excruciating honesty that resonates. […] If one of the purposes of fiction is to show us ourselves, Wieringa’s mirror is polished to perfection.

  28. I found another critical review recently, this one written by a psychiatrist who works in an emergency department, who is exactly the type of expert professional I want to hear from:

    I first read A Little Life during a week of vacation last April while visiting family in the Midwest, and I couldn’t put it down. At the time, I was nine months into my first year as an attending psychiatrist. My primary job is to provide psychiatric assessment and care in the emergency department of a tertiary care hospital. In a typical shift, I might see 10 to 20 patients, suicidal, psychotic, intoxicated, or withdrawing from some mixture of drugs, all presenting in extremis. As the year went on, patients and situations began to feel repetitive, exhaustion set in, and some amount of humanity got lost.

    A Little Life was the perfect book at that moment because it acted, for me, as an empathy rejuvenator. Yanagihara does an immaculate job describing the life of her protagonist, Jude, whose formative years were devoid of secure attachment and suffused with overwhelming sexual abuse. She renders the abuse, and his subsequent self-injury, in excruciating detail. Jude’s motivations, and his attempts to cope with his life and pain, become relatable. It allowed me to better understand my patients and their maladaptive behavior. Crying at the end of the novel the first time around was cathartic.

    I was haunted by the book, and judging from the online reaction to it (occasionally divisive, but generally fawning), I was not alone. I became kind of obsessed. I looked up the Instagram account, in which Yanagihara posts images she took as inspiration while writing the book, and people recreate scenes from the novel or photograph themselves with the now iconic cover in place of their faces. I found interviews with Yanagihara in print, on podcasts, and on talk shows.

    This book gnawed at me for nine months, so I was eager to reread it for the tournament. Once again, I couldn’t put it down, but what once seemed whimsical and required me to think, “OK, I guess I’ll roll with this,” now felt occasionally exasperating. While Yanagihara makes Jude compelling and sympathetic, his surroundings – both characters and settings – were distractingly idyllic. In an effort to make the story timeless, or fable- or fairy tale-like, the novel starts out in our vaguely present day with all of the trappings of specific New York neighborhoods, real estate envy, food porn, the lifts given by attending the right schools, and rampant professional success, and progresses over 30-plus years without any specific markers of life in the early 21st century. In contrast, the abuse isn’t opaque: It’s precise, terrifying, and tough to read.

    I’m not sure the novel can effectively be both a fairy tale and a deep dive into a traumatized psyche. Jude’s many relationships are too patient and forgiving. While internally, Jude is complicated and struggling to survive, his outward presentation is that of a high-maintenance enigma. Surely his three college roommates, all later charismatic and bizarrely successful, would have tired of Jude. Same for his mentor and primary care physician Andy (which, by the way, I’ve yet to meet the orthopedic surgeon who would run a single-patient practice and would let this go on for years without psychiatric intervention). With Jude’s refusal to open up and his pattern of rejecting help, they would’ve burned out long ago.

    Certain illnesses (e.g., cancer), if they’re advanced enough and are likely to cause death, are given a prognosis of “terminal.” But physicians don’t prognosticate mental illness as terminal; sometimes we’ll acknowledge the seeming inevitability of suicide in retrospect, but it’s not like we have psychiatric palliative care or hospice for depression. In contrast, Jude is as terminal a patient as I can imagine. Which makes it impossible for me to square Yanagihara’s intention to write a realistic response to trauma – many people, even with treatment, don’t get better – with the adoptive, supportive environment he has managed to cultivate for himself. If the point is to say that even with money, a lover, an adoptive father, friends, and outward success, Jude can’t cope any better in his 50s than in his 20s, then fine. But in all likelihood, he never would’ve achieved any of this in the first place. His exterior adult life would have been one of despair. In writing a novel rooted in sexual trauma, Yanagihara has a responsibility to portray the entire realistically traumatized life. But it felt dishonest to portray childhood sex crimes and a battered psyche in gruesome detail and then the resulting external adult life with Vaseline on the lens. The inexhaustible sympathy and patience Jude finds in others is wishful, but a fantasy. The two competing styles – competing logics, really – of the book don’t mesh, and on second read the emotional resonance wasn’t there. The book felt like a curiosity.

    The other two reviews (see the sidebar) are actually both pretty funny, maybe laughing at this garbage book is the best defence?

    The comment threads are all very interesting too, with far too many good ones to copy and paste; as I have said more than once already, it is a great relief to see other people saying the same things I have been saying.

    I will copy this one comment, from Aliceunderskies, because I think what she has to say is particularly important:

    I don’t understand why art is cocooned from basic social responsibility just because it is art. I see this most in literature, particularly, and it is baffling: everyone understands that Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will contain dangerous, hateful ideas; the fact that they are both technically groundbreaking films doesn’t negate their toxicity. Dr. Oz and the various celebrity anti-vaxxers are derided and their bodies of work avoided by large groups of people because they are recognized as anti-scientific and dangerous to public health. There are plenty of philosophers who are jettisoned because of their politics. Do you read Bill O’Reilly’s writing, or do his politics deter you? Or for the genre fans in the room: how do you feel about Orson Scott Card? Do Tarantino’s interviews disincline you to give the man money and a platform for his work?

    I imagine that most of you do this with some creator, in some medium or genre. I believe that HY is doing something similar to Card when she writes a 700-page tome in support of suicide and then uses the platform it has gained her to confirm that this was her intention and to further promote her (unresearched) beliefs about abuse and about the uselessness of therapy.

    To be clear: this is contrary to science. And I keep up on this particular branch of scientific literature. The excellent judgment begins to approach just how troubling this book is. But I would like to step back and say that I cannot understand how and why anyone can defend it given the beliefs of its author. Would you try so hard to separate book from author if the author said that well, maybe all cancer sufferers or people with diabetes should just kill themselves bc treatment is overrated? Is it because this is mental health, not physical, that everyone is comfortable with the message of the work? Because it doesn’t matter if you took solace in the scenes of hope: the point of the book was that all the goodness and support could not save Jude from suicide. The point of the book was that some people are just broken, nothing will help them, just let them die. I hope I do not need to explain why this is dangerous. Google the statistics on suicide in general–and suicide and trauma more specifically–for yourself if you don’t know already. I invite you to sit for a moment with the belief that they couldn’t have been saved, all those people who are now numbers; that their trauma was fatal from the moment it occurred. How does that make you feel?

    Why should the fact that HY wrote an OMG-literary-novel insulate her from the same standards of social responsibility that we expect from everyone else when she has made it clear that this book is, in fact, a straightforward representation of her (dangerous) personal beliefs? If she were using a different form to give the same message would you defend it then? And would you tell victims who found themselves uncomfortable in the encounter of the message that *shrug* they should have been more careful?

    I am not a lazy reader. I might be ungenerous, but I don’t think that I shouldn’t be. I take literature seriously: I know all about Young Werther. We KNOW that art exists in the world, and I believe that this is as valid as any a way to take a novel. Because a novel is not actually a mystical communion with the divine. Or maybe it is, sometimes–I am not here to contest anyone’s religious beliefs. But I am an historian, and it seems to me that literature, more than any other art form, it is an expression of one consciousness, one subjectivity, one set of beliefs about the world. And we hold each other responsible for our actions–and speech-actions–in the world, or we should. Why does the form and the veneer of fiction insulate the individual creator from being responsible for what they do in the world? Why is fiction inherently privileged? And yeah death of the author, whatever, but that is a philosophical stance that I do not accept–and I would like to remind you that even Barthes stepped back from this claim later in life. A written text is just a speech-action that keeps happening. It preserves the subjectivity of its author beyond their death–but it is never divorced from that one person, that one subjectivity. This is the underlying logic that allows history to exist. Why does writing something in the genre of literary fiction erase this for so many of you?

    I am not saying that this book shouldn’t have been written. But I do think that Yanagihara should be held responsible for writing it. I think we should culturally question her, as we do Woody Allen, for her choice of subject matter and the manner in which she frames it. We should question her unwillingness to engage with the very people she represents, as we do writers in other genres and disciplines. Most of all I think that the publishing world and literary community and individual readers all bear a responsibility for contextualizing this work and others–a responsibility that is too-often sacrificed before the belief in “Art” as something separate from life. I am grateful to Judge Taylor for doing this, just as I have been grateful for the outspoken reviews that stood against what this book, and it’s reception, represent.

    A few recommendations before I go for the year: this privileging of “art” over real live people reminds me of the work of archaeologist Yannis Hamilakis, who speaks powerfully against this to my discipline; Jennifer Hecht’s work, especially Stay: A History of Suicide, an important counterbalance to Yanagihara’s message; the work of Roxane Gay, for her advocacy against the idea that trauma is a death sentence; the television show Jessica Jones for representing such a varied spectrum of trauma; Mrs. Dalloway, if you haven’t read it, for an example of writing about trauma & life that truly does expand your empathy. I will accept recommendations on good literature in the field of critical trauma theory as I have not been happy with what I have read in this field.

  29. I still can’t help thinking that A Little Life will turn out to be some kind of bizarre literary hoax. Just look at Yanagihara’s choice of cover image, which looks like a man grimacing in pain, but is actually a man orgasming. Pain is pleasure and pleasure is pain; Yanagihara is playing a big sadomasochistic joke on all her readers.

    On the other hand, maybe she believes this herself. She told the Baileys Prize how much she enjoyed writing all the characters (as I said, I take her emphasis on ‘all’ here to mean the abusive characters), and the National Book Award how ‘joyous’ it was to inhabit darkness.

    This is ironic given that her editor attacked Daniel Mendelsohn for describing A Little Life as “little more than a machine designed to produce negative emotions for the reader to wallow in,” that seems to be exactly her intention.
    But then, looking at all the trophies/souvenirs/icons/fetish objects of the book its fans are creating/collecting, perhaps they’re all in on it too.

  30. I would like to examine a comment made by Nozlee at the Morning News Tournament of Books:

    What I want to talk about here, though, is the gender-normative, hetero-normative, honestly small-minded way that people — including both y’all commentariat and Kevin up there in the commentary — have talked about Willem and Jude’s relationship in the book. For the purposes of this comment, I don’t think the “Great Gay Novel” thing is even worth addressing (as teedle called it, it’s just “typical … Atlantic over-reach”). But I will say that A Little Life presented me with maybe the first example of a “genderless” (which I’ll define for this comment as “existing outside of qualities societally associated with any certain sex”) relationship that I’ve seen in fiction, and that meant the world to me.

    (And overall, ALL is genderless in ways I loved — even Malcolm’s shuffling about his sexuality is presented exclusively as evidence of his indecisiveness rather than angst about what it is “right” to be; even Willem’s professional “coming out” is more about the public changing its perception of him as X instead of Y rather than judging him for that. It’s one of the aspects of the utopian NYC that the book builds that I loved most, and the most truly revolutionary.)

    To that end, I was so disappointed at Kevin’s description of Willem as a “committed heterosexual” (which is factually wrong — “[Willem had] had sex with men before, everyone he knew had”) and his confusion at Willem not seeing “anything incongruous about his relationship with Jude.” Have none of you here in the comments ever fallen in love with a friend, months or years after you first met them? Is it so hard to imagine that friend being of your own gender?

    Somewhat predictably, this is the part of the comment where I talk about myself! I *have* fallen in love with a friend, years after I first met him; it *is* very easy for me to imagine my partner being of my own gender, mostly because the continual erasure of societally-mandated gender performance from this seven-year-plus relationship remains super important to both of us. That’s work that we have to put in because of the world we live in; in Yanagihara’s New York, a lot (though not all) of that work has already been done.

    To get back to my original point: seeing Willem and Jude’s relationship unfold finally gave me the experience of seeing a fictive relationship that mirrored my own. I wish there were more such genderless experiences of love in fiction; I would certainly welcome any suggestions about where to find them. As has happened over and over these past several months, seeing readers unable to compute the fact of gender not mattering in the context of a relationship has made me despair about the odds of the way I conduct my relationship ever being seen as normal or as any kind of default in my lifetime.

    The first thing I want to point out is that the ‘fact’ of Willem’s bisexuality is shoehorned in at the last minute, he certainly isn’t written as openly bisexual from the start; and if he were openly bisexual, it is not unreasonable to think that that would have made the friendship between Jude and Willem different. Jude spends a long time being afraid that Harold will turn out to be another abuser, and he reacts very badly when JB kisses him. Willem being openly sexually involved with men might, realistically, have made them less close, surely it was his staunch heterosexuality up until that ‘reveal’ (he always had a girlfriend) that made him ‘safe’ for Jude? (Is this an example of A Little Life’s first-draft-itist, or an irreconcilable plot flaw?)

    The claim that Willem and Jude’s relationship is ‘genderless’ is a strange one, even given Nozlee’s definition of ‘genderless’ (“existing outside of qualities societally associated with any certain sex”).

    While it’s true that none of the men in this book are typically macho, Jude is completely feminised; he is physically crippled, sexually castrated, he cuts himself (a self-harming behaviour associated more with women that men), and spends all his free time cooking and cleaning and saying sorry. He feels he has a ‘duty’ to sexually service Willem in exchange for affection, and he is also entirely emotionally dependent on Willem (he literally can’t live without him).

    Willem doesn’t exactly come across as ‘genderless’ either, when he ignores his fears about Jude’s past, and the fact that Jude is constantly on the verge of disassociating, all because he’s so eager to stick his dick in him.

    Is Willem and Jude’s relationship ‘genderless’ because they stop having sex? I don’t see how the lack of sex in a relationship makes it ‘genderless’.

    It isn’t even the case that Willem doesn’t want to have sex with Jude, it’s that he eventually opens his eyes and sees that the sex (or to be more accurate, rape, since Jude feels like he can’t say no) is killing Jude, so they stop, and Willem has affairs (mostly with women) instead.

    The sexlessness isn’t an active choice, Jude and Willem do not exist on some higher plane of consciousness, it’s a workaround to deal with Jude’s extreme sexual trauma (without which Jude believes he would be ‘normal’, ie heterosexual).

    If their relationship resembles anything, it is a typical male-dominated heterosexual marriage; Willem doesn’t get his sexual ‘needs’ met at home, so he goes elsewhere, in order to preserve the outward appearance of the relationship. Billions of women throughout history have gladly accepted handing over the burden of sexually servicing their husbands to someone else.

    If the claim here is that Willem fell in love with Jude in spite of Jude being a man, why then insist on Willem’s bisexuality (that scenario only works if Willem is 100% het)? If that was actually the point (if that was Yanagihara’s intention), why make them have sex at all? (I know why, because she wanted to torture Jude some more.)

    Reading those last two paragraphs, I’m still not entirely sure what Nozlee means by ‘genderless’; if it means egalitarianism (ie, both partners do a fair share of the cooking and cleaning and car maintenance), what has a commitment to egalitarianism within a heterosexual relationship have to do with homosexuality or bisexuality? Is being in a relationship with a not-typically-masculine man the same as being in a relationship with a woman? Isn’t that actually homophobic (Jude might as well be a woman, since he’s not a ‘real’, ie masculine, man)?

    The claims about the book portraying a ‘utopian’ ‘genderless’ NYC don’t really hold water either. It is not that the whole world accepts homosexuality (although the sheer number of homosexual abusers Jude encounters while hitch-hiking might suggest otherwise, but that’s hardly ‘utopian’), just that Jude and his friends are inside an exclusive, solipsistic bubble (a rich, privileged elite, doing well under the the status quo, is not ‘utopian’ by any definition – Jude is a corporate lawyer who represents big pharma against whistle-blowers, how on earth is that ‘utopian’?).

    The lack of fuss over Willem’s coming out is just poor writing – if we are to assume that this future NYC develops out of the present and isn’t a literal ‘no place’, the lack of paparazzi and media interest in Willem and Jude is nonsensical.

    I suspect Nozlee has projected a lot of wishful thinking onto A Little Life to meet her need to see a ‘genderless’ relationship, whatever that actually means (has she read no science fiction?). Also some wilful forgetfulness; when she says that Willem and Jude’s relationship mirrors her own, I sincerely hope she is not including the sexual, physical and emotional violence Willem commits against Jude early in the relationship.

    And isn’t it bizarre, given that Yanagihara has more or less admitted to writing sadomasochistic torture porn, that someone can wring a ‘utopian’ reading from it!?

  31. I admire your dedication to bashing one book that you write a long blog post and then COMMENT on your own blog post with addendums. I tracked you down based on your nymag comments and your goodreads comments. That’s some crazy dedication. Who knew this book could inspire such vitriol that you would feel the need to bash it on MULTIPLE sites? Geez. Overkill. Give it a rest.

  32. I have read this book, and I have thought about it critically (a hell of a lot more than most of its fans seem to have). If A Little Life is ‘literature’, and if art matters, then I have a right to think about it, and a right to express my thoughts.

    If you don’t like what I have to say, how about trying to prove me wrong?

    And if I’m engaging in ‘overkill’, what are you doing by ‘tracking me down’ just to tell me to shut up?

  33. There is something very very strange about A Little Life fandom.

    It would be different if the book was actually any good, if there was anything real or realistic about it, if it said something meaningful about the human experience; but a handful of quotable quotes on friendship do not justify the mean-spirited, contrived, shoddy, torture-porn whole.

    Sure, it’s a compelling book, the slow striptease reveal of Jude’s abuse keeps the pages turning, but it’s like the jump scares in a bad horror film, it does the job but there’s nothing clever going on underneath.

    I’ve already looked at the mental gymnastics one person went through to scrape a meaningful reading from A Little Life, I have to wonder what contortions other readers are going through.

    If people who have experienced trauma are using A Little Life as a coping mechanism, they have a right to that, but I find it difficult to understand how the book could actually help anyone. Jude doesn’t make it, he was never going to, that was the whole point, and who, in real life, has all of Jude’s extravagant compensations? I just hope Yanagihara’s toxic ideology regarding mental health and suicide does not come through clearly in the text.

    I also find it difficult to believe that someone who had experienced trauma similar to Jude’s, would want to remind themselves of that via a themed cake, or a hand-made key-ring they would see every day.

    So what, exactly, are people getting out of A Little Life? What are they celebrating?

    Consider the Hujar cover; everyone knows by now that it is a photograph of a man at the moment of ejaculation; its use as a book cover has given people license to publicly display an image that, outside of an art gallery, is interchangeable with a screen-shot from a hard-core porn film. Is there is a certain Ooh, look at me, aren’t I naughty? exhibitionism to it? What are the people who do this advertising about themselves?

    Early on I wrote that I did not think a significant number of fans were getting sadistic pleasure from the book, but now I am not so sure. A large number of fans have posed for selfies with the Hujar cover over their face, how is that not essentially mocking the protagonist? How is it any different from putting on a limp and going look at me, I’m Jude St. Francis!?

    Maybe it is all just one big sadomasochist joke and I’m not in on it?

    The fans love Jude, they love consuming him (just like Brother Luke did!), they love his suffering and his futile attempts at survival; they are carrion eaters picking over his carcass. The whole thing is macabre.

  34. Exhibit A: the themed cake

    Is the burnt sugar on the top to remind the consumers of the time a monk set Jude’s hand on fire when he was a child, or the time Jude inflicted third degree burns on himself in adulthood?

    Exhibit B: the hand-made key-ring

    Won’t it be great for A Little Life fans if/when a TV series is made – then they will have real images of Jude’s tortured body to turn into souvenirs/trophies/icons/fetish objects.

    Exhibit C: the Norwegian tote bag

    Exhibit D: the first book selfie a Google image search for ‘a little life’ turned up

  35. I don’t think we should dismiss these concerns being labelled as “cultural appropriation”, however. There is something discreditable about a straight woman giving her obviously inadequate version of gay male relations, or a rich American arts graduate giving his researched version of the country of his great-grandfathers, or a middle-class Londoner explaining what it is like to be an impoverished Nigerian immigrant. There’s no doubt that prize juries have elevated such productions above the superior but disadvantaged accounts by gay male authors, Gujarati novelists, or that Nigerian immigrant himself. Those accounts may be lost forever.

    Philip Hensher

    I am 100% certain he is talking about Yanagihara for the first example (he was one of the reviewers on the Front Row programme quoted above)!

  36. I saw the comparison made, in one of the ToB threads, between A Little Life and Ursula Le Guin’s The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas (the story can be read online here, and there is a good analysis of it here).

    I had made that comparison to myself at one point, with Jude as both the child in the basement and the adult inhabitant of utopia. The comparison ultimately doesn’t work, not just because Jude doesn’t inhabit utopia (unless your idea of utopia is entirely shallow and materialistic), but because A Little Life is shoddy torture porn that tells us nothing about the human condition, while The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas is a powerful and meaningful metaphor.

    The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas is a metaphor, it doesn’t matter why or how that child got into the cellar (Le Guin supplies no detailed back story involving garbage cans or unrealistic religious orders), it being there is simply ‘necessary’. It is a metaphor for lots of things, for the sweatshop workers in the global south whose suffering is ‘necessary’ for the comforts and ease we have in the global north, for the abused and exploited closer to home.

    The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas asks a meaningful political question, drawing on Utilitarian and Kantian ethics; would you choose to live in utopia if you knew the cost of it was one child suffering? Would you choose your own comfort and ease if you knew the cost of it was paid for by someone else? How much of the suffering of others are you prepared to accept (making it one child only is significant)?

    The ‘question’ A Little Life asks, if you try to map it onto The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas, is banal and ridiculous: would you consent to be raped and beaten from the age of nine and crippled at fifteen, if it meant that as an adult you would have a lot of money and a relationship with a Hollywood film star?

    Of course that silly question is not the same as someone (anyone) looking back over their life, weighing up all the good and bad, and deciding that overall their life had been worthwhile (or not); that is something someone can do only at the end of their life, once its final shape is known.

    The moral weight of the parable of The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas is that the people of Omelas really do have a choice, to accept the status quo or to walk away. In real life people do have choices when faced with political injustices, to accept or to try to change things, but no one in real life has control over the accident of their birth or the circumstances of their childhood, or the chance to do it all again, differently or otherwise.

    The ‘question’ of A Little Life is also silly because it implies some kind of ‘necessary’ cause and effect (not a metaphorical necessity) where there is none; being raped and beaten as a child is not a necessary prerequisite to getting in to Harvard, being held captive and raped in a dungeon basement is not a necessary prerequisite to becoming a lawyer (or a gardener or a pastry chef).

    Yanagihara may perhaps believe that there is some kind of bargain going on in A Little Life; she has Ana tell Jude “You may have something to thank Brother Luke for after all”, in regards to his education (an incredibly incompetent thing to say, but then every adult Jude encounters who isn’t an abuser is incompetent in one way or another).

    Strangely, given her self-declared remit(s), Yanagihara, maybe, has Jude decide that the shape of his life, overall, is a good one, when he imagines all the people he would never have met – specifically Willem – if his life had played out differently.

    Yangihara actually fails to show that childhood sex abuse destroys a person, because the implication is, if Willem hadn’t been killed, they would have lived happily ever after together – Yanagihara chickens out at that point, she cheats her own remit! To be really ‘brave’ would have been to show them living into old age together, but Jude still not being able to escape his demons, to show that true love doesn’t conquer all, rather than pile another violent injustice onto Jude. I didn’t think I could find another example of A Little Life’s shoddiness/first-draft-itis, but here we are!

    To understand the cultural phenomenon of A Little Life, imagine the house in Omelas with that cellar contains a gift shop and themed cafe, and as well as the small number of citizens who walk away from Omelas, and the majority who choose to accept the knowledge, some people buy a tote bag with a picture of the suffering child on it, because they want to relive and advertise the intense emotional experience they had observing the child in the cellar – or a novelty mask of the child’s suffering face to wear as they pose for photos outside the house.

    If you think I’m being unfair, look at all the people taking selfies with the Hujar cover in front of their faces, or look at all the excitement over the idea of a TV adaptation of A Little Life. Every fan knows which actor they want to see play Jude, that’s which actor they want to see cutting and burning and starving themselves, which actor they want to see raped and beaten and thrown down the stairs, which actor they want to see covered in scars and open wounds and deteriorating until parts of their body have to be removed.

  37. A Little Life doesn’t work on any level, plot, characterisation, world building, it can’t survive any critical analysis. Strip out those elements and all you are left with is sadism and cruelty – it is torture porn, there is no other label for it – plus the author’s toxic ideology with regards to mental illness and suicide, intimate partner violence and consent (and the snobbery and materialism). It is worthless, and morally rotten to the core.

  38. Since I have broken my self-imposed embargo on writing anything more about this garbage book, I may as well have a look at some of the more recent articles (and hopefully get this shit out of my system once and for all!).

    From the ‘writing bad guys is fun’ interview I already referenced, we also have this:

    “Some reviews of Yanagihara – especially A Little Life – have zeroed in on the implausibility of the plot. But she handles these questions with good-natured aplomb, calling it an old-fashioned book in the sense that it demands the reader’s involvement. If you can’t surrender yourself to the story, it won’t be satisfying.”

    If an author has to tell their readers that they need to suspend their disbelief, they are tacitly admitting that the writing isn’t up to scratch – good writing stands on its own merits, the suspension of disbelief comes naturally, invisibly. Also, it is not the author’s place to say whether their work is any good or not. I think Yanagihara must know, on some level, that A Little Life is nonsensical, it takes a special kind of arrogance to publish a barely-edited first draft, and to keep defending it.

    And what’s so ‘satisfying’ about it anyway? If the story is implausible, if it tells us nothing important about the real world (directly or allegorically), the only ‘satisfaction’ it provides is as torture porn.

    This isn’t the first example of such authorial arrogance; in the Electric Literature interview, Yanagihara tells us how we are supposed to realise that Jude’s abusers are complicated characters with full back-stories – this is quite laughable, Dr Traylor in particular is a cardboard cut-out, Yanagihara is telling us that the characters being written as two-dimensional is ‘proof’ that they are multi-dimensional! It’s odd also to see, in the same interview, Yanagihara say that the writer needs to show empathy and respect for ‘evil’ characters, when she shows no empathy or respect for her main character – odd until you remember that it really is torture porn.

    In this interview, Yanagihara says:

    “As for child sexual abuse, it’s not a topic I’m interested in. What I am interested in is abuses of power.”

    This is another in the long line of excuses Yanagihara has made about A Little Life; she has exactly the same level of interest (or lack of interest) in the abuse of power as she has in child sex abuse, for the suffering they cause; she wasn’t interested enough in the abuse of power to do any research in order to give us a realistic account of the corruption and incompetence and indifference that allows child abuse to occur in the real world.

    To be really ‘brave’ and ‘important’ would be to research that corruption and incompetence and indifference, to listen to survivors of abuse, and to then write a work of fiction that told us something useful about the real world, rather than making shit up for the reader to wallow in.

    Now we come to the real doozy, this interview here:

    “After the book was published, there were doctors and social workers who told me they have had patients whose lives resembled Jude’s.”

    One social worker said she was treating a young man who had been abused almost exactly as Jude had been and that she was certain he would kill himself at some point.

    Yanagihara says: “I always knew that Jude’s life was possible. I knew it wasn’t common or typical, but I knew it was possible.

    “It’s not vindication, hearing some of these stories that are worse than anything I could have conjured for Jude. It’s just deeply sad to think of what humans live with and endure.”

    This is disgusting, creepy, and macabre (that ideology-affirming “certain he would kill himself”, the false piety of “deeply sad” – so ‘deeply sad’ she made up 700+ pages of it herself!), she’s almost crowing about it (I knew I was right! Er, I mean I get no satisfaction at all from knowing I was right.).

    I find it strange, given the way that doctors and social workers are portrayed in A Little Life (as unethical, incompetent, or indifferent, before you even get to the outright abusers), that any of them would want to communicate with Yanagihara about their patients/clients.

    I also find it worrying, given the beliefs Yanagihara has publically stated about mental health and suicide, that professionals and individual suffers may be contacting her for advice (what was her reply, to the social worker with the suicidal patient?).

    It is worrying that someone who clearly states that she has done no research into abuse, mental illness, or psychiatry/psychology, is being given free range to pronounce on the subject, and is even being treated as some kind of authority on it. Hardly anyone seems to have noticed or cared, that she is using the platform her literary success has provided, to air her toxic ideology on mental illness and suicide.

    The message to those with a mental illness that their lives are worthless and they would be better off dead is there in the book, with the ‘axiom of equality’: damaged good will always be damaged goods.

    As for the ‘almost exactly’ claim, bullshit! No doctor or social worker should be giving away enough details of their patient’s life for anyone to be able to say ‘almost exactly’.

    The levels of abuse I have never disputed, but the details? Oh please. No US state has abandoned a newborn baby to a monastery that was not set up as an orphanage at any point in the last 70 years (and even if they had, that monastery does not exist!). Paedophile pimps do not regularly use self-cutting as a means to control their victims (I’m not going to say it has never happened, or could never happen, but if it happens at all it’s at rates close to zero). Also, notice that this is a young man, not a man in his fifties with a high-flying legal career – no Harvard scholarship for him either I’m willing to bet.

    It’s disgusting that Yanagihara is using this in this way, to try to ‘prove’ something about her shoddy torture porn garbage book – she had no interest in this person’s existence while she was actually writing, and if his experience didn’t ‘match up’ to Jude’s, she wouldn’t be interested in him now.

    Take the very basics of Jude’s life: 1) Physically and sexually abused in a religious institution. 2) Homeless and prostituted. 3) Battered by an abusive boyfriend; with those, you are describing tens of thousands of people, at least, in North America alone; add in 4) Held captive and seriously injured by a violent john, and you are still talking about thousands of people; require 5) A basement dungeon and a murder attempt, and you are probably still talking in the low hundreds (and at that point are definitely discussing someone real in enough detail to compromise the victim’s confidentiality). While my numbered points do describe Jude’s abusive childhood, there is none of the detail at all, so no, not ‘almost exactly’ the same.

    From the same interview:

    Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life, might soon make it to the small screen. Fans rejoiced when she posted on her Instagram account in August that the book has been optioned for a television miniseries of eight to 10 episodes.

    She is quick to avow that all is up in the air for now. “We need a streaming service and a network to buy (the show). Until that happens, it’s all theoretical.”

    […]

    She is open to different ways of telling her story on-screen and wants it to be “an interpretation, not a translation”.

    “The best adaptations are those which don’t faithfully follow the book in terms of plot details, but do in spirit and tone,” she says.

    […]

    She is not sure how the graphic horror of Jude’s past can be translated to the screen, but she hopes it will not be dialled down for television audiences. “I would like the series to be visceral as well.”

    How can they be pitching an adaptation without knowing how it is going to be adapted? I can understand people not wanting to work on spec, but you would think they would at least have an elevator pitch, would at least know whether it’s going to be played as camp or horror or melodrama. Is this yet more arrogance? A Little Life is so ‘important’ that the name alone should be enough to sell it?

    Maybe a story that has, as one of its central premises, the idea that wealth and power equate with moral goodness, doesn’t resonate so much in the current political climate?

    Even if they dramatised every incidence of child rape and self-harm, what story is there to fill eight to ten hours with? Endless life-style porn and exotic locations? Any faithful adaptation is going to show up how shoddy and ridiculous the original actually is.

    And that “visceral”! When I used the term previously I did so mockingly, but Yanagihara is in earnest here. I think it really is a big sadomasochistic joke to her, she waves it in our faces often enough, but the general reading public keeps on ignoring it.

  39. Yanagihara’s claim to have some kind of authorial ‘duty’ to chronicle the entirety of Jude’s damaged life (or however it is she worded it) doesn’t ring true when so much of Jude’s life is vague, fanciful, or incoherent: That non-existent monastery/cattle ranch; Jude’s ‘post-racialness’ (he is ‘black-enough’ to be unadoptable as a baby, but in adulthood, not ‘black-enough’ to ever suffer any racial discrimination, only to be ‘exotic’); Jude getting a free private physician, just because he is so very special; the lack of specifics about his STD infections; the inconsistency of his leg/hip/spine problems; the amazing support network that just seems to fall into Jude’s lap; the lack of abuse images turning up in Jude’s adulthood; the lack of paparazzi interest in Jude and Willem’s relationship. (Like I already said, forget Upsetting the Reader, this is Insulting the Reader’s Intelligence.)

    How were there enough hours in the day for Jude, under the age of nine, to be a fulltime farm-hand and domestic drudge, get a first class education, and still have enough free time to be groomed by Brother Luke (when he wasn’t being abused by the other brothers)? How did he manage such a high-flying career when he was in such constant physical and psychological pain?

    This is why I think it is correct to call A Little Life torture porn. It’s torture porn because all the characters are puppets; only the violence and suffering themselves are real, while the circumstances, the plot, characters, world-building, are all contrived and ridiculous; the whole world twisted around to torture one character to death.

    And it is just that one character; if I recall correctly, there was no mention, even in passing, of the children’s home being investigated and the abusers there being prosecuted, even though the abuse there would still be going on – as if those abused children were beneath consideration, because they weren’t as important and special as Jude; it’s another morally dubious and distasteful thing to add to the already long list.

    There is something mean spirited and mocking about A Little Life, Yanagihara has made it very clear in interviews that Jude would and could never recover, so we are invited to consume his futile attempts over 700+ pages – it is torture porn.

    Does A Little Life risk becoming a Rain Man for abuse victims? People expect autistic people to have some special talent, will they start expecting abuse victims to be amazing over-achievers? What about the people who aren’t, are they less deserving of sympathy? Do you have to be beautiful and talented to be worthy of sympathy?

    And who has suffered enough, in comparison to Jude, to be ‘allowed’ to be depressed/traumatised, to be deserving of sympathy? What if you were ‘only’ beaten from the age of nine, what if the rapes ‘only’ started when you were a teenager, what if no one ever set your hand on fire? Will people not want to know?

    One of the many offensive things about A Little Life, is the implication that we should care about this particular victim because he ends up as someone ‘important’ (rich, powerful, successful – never mind how unrealistic that is anyway). Isolation (actual or perceived) and poverty are the reality for many people with a physical or mental illness. This is what I mean by mean-spirited and mocking, who gets that ‘fairytale’ adulthood in real life (and even if they did, their lives still wouldn’t be worth living, so the joke’s still on them for even trying)?

    Forget the appropriation of gay men’s experiences, what about the appropriation of abuse victims’ experiences – those people Yanagihara wasn’t interested enough in to find out anything about before writing 700 pages of torture porn about them? (At least she was interested enough to watch some porn before writing about gay men.) Yanagihara has dictated their lives from on high (their lives have been ‘destroyed’, suicide is ‘inevitable’), how has she been given such a free pass with this type of bigotry?

    Depression/mental illness is a natural response to an unbearable situation, not ‘proof’ of being ‘broken’ – a realistic reading of Jude’s childhood would tell us he ‘didn’t make it’ because of the lack of psychiatric/therapeutic support, not because the abuse ‘destroyed’ him. Such language is incredibly harmful in the real world.

    I have read interviews where Yanagihara comes across as highly intelligent, and she has obviously thought about what she was doing (but not as much as she should have), and I certainly don’t think she is stupid (breath-takingly arrogant, yes, but not stupid). Intelligence, of course, is not incompatible with sadism, the two are far from mutually exclusive (I have read the book itself). Yanagihara is honest about it occasionally, the Hujar cover, the ‘inhabiting darkness joyfully’ comment, the ‘writing bad guys is fun!’ comment, and I would respect her more if she had stuck to that, rather than make all these grandiose, contradictory, and revisionist claims about how Important (condescendingly capitalised) A Little Life is. I still keep coming back to the idea that it is some kind of hoax, Yanagihara really is seeing how long she can keep this joke running.

  40. The thing that really convinces me that A Little Life is torture porn is the ‘relationship’ between Willem and Jude. If the whole point was to show that friendship is as important as, or better than, a sexual relationship, why make them have sex at all? Why shoehorn in Willem’s bisexuality at the last minute?

    Yanagihara could have had them make a few fumbling attempts and give up, she could have had Willem notice straight away how much it was traumatising Jude (and I have serious doubts that PTSD/disassociation is something a sufferer can control like that, consistently, over the long term).

    Instead, it is an excuse for another long round of self-harm (was the ‘cooking accident’ – like a character ‘levelling up’ in a computer game – something it was really important to Yanagihara to get in there?). It serves no purpose plot-wise, since the flashbacks start long before this point – we are not learning about Jude’s past along with Willem. Since Yanagihara has stated that she does not ‘believe in’ talk therapy, getting Jude to tell Willem about his past cannot be claimed as an important part of the story (and there are plenty of other ways they could have got to that point where he talked).

    If it was so important to tell us about the ‘skills’ (*puke*) Jude ‘learned’ as a sexually abused child, Yanagihara could have shown that with Caleb (why didn’t he do that with Caleb? And here’s another thing, gay men are actually into cock, why didn’t Caleb notice he was impotent? If nothing else, Yanagihara missed another opportunity for Caleb to humiliate Jude – first-draft-itis strikes again).

    It is pure, pointless sadism, just like the rest of it.

  41. I really hoped I had drawn a line under this one, but this article was just too relevant to ignore:

    The Keepers is harrowing, documenting awful violence and abuse. I recently heard someone describe it as “brilliant”, and follow that immediately with “don’t watch it”. White was well aware of its potential impact. “We knew we had found something very sad, but also very powerful, that could lead to a lot of change,” he says. The sheer scope of the story The Keepers ends up telling – a cover-up of child abuse on a mass scale within the Catholic church; a new Spotlight, of sorts – became frightening to him.

    Emphasis added by me. This is why A Little Life is such pointless, pretentious, garbage, it says nothing meaningful, or useful, or good, it’s all made up.

  42. While I’m here anyway, and on a smarmier note …

    Netflix (excellent documentaries notwithstanding) would be the perfect company to make an TV adaptation of A Little Life. It has already produced a glamorised, irresponsible account of teenage suicide, and another of anorexia; why not go for a hat-trick and grand finale with a TV show that offers a completely unrealistic (and therefore meaningless) account of the circumstances of child abuse, self-harming in glamourous locations, intimate partner violence as romance (I am, of course, thinking of Willem here, not Caleb), and suicide as the ‘inevitable’ outcome of mental illness?

  43. The Wellcome Trust’s Mosaic website recently published a really good article by Simon Usborne on suicide prevention:

    The zero approach is a proactive strategy that aims to identify and care for all those who may be at risk of suicide, rather than reacting once patients have reached crisis point. It emphasises strong leadership, improved training, better patient screening and the use of the latest data and research to make changes without fear or delay. It is a joined-up strategy that challenges old ideas about the ‘inevitability’ of suicide, stigma, and the idea that if a reduction target is achieved, the deaths on the way to it are somehow acceptable. “Even if you believe we are never going to eradicate suicide, we must strive towards that,” Mallen says. “If zero isn’t the right target, then what is?”

    […]

    Traditionally, suicide has been viewed as a deliberate action, a conscious choice. As a result, mental health systems have tended to regard at-risk patients in one of two ways. “There were the individuals who are at risk but can’t really be stopped,” says David Covington, a Zero Suicide pioneer based in Phoenix, Arizona. “They’re ‘intent on it’ is the phrase you hear. ‘You can’t stop someone who’s fully intent on killing themselves.’ So there is this strange logic that individuals who die couldn’t be stopped because they weren’t going to seek care and tell us what was going on. And those who do talk to us were seen as somehow manipulative because of their ambivalence. You heard the word ‘gesturing’. So we have this whole language that seemed to minimise the risk.”

    Covington is president and CEO of RI International, a mental health group based in Phoenix that has more than 50 crisis centres and other programmes across the USA, as well as a number in Auckland, New Zealand. A prominent and energetic speaker, he is also president-elect of the board of directors of the American Association of Suicidology, a charitable organisation based in Washington, DC, and leads an international Zero Suicide initiative. When he started in mental health more than 20 years ago, he was dismayed by the gaps in training and thinking he found in the system. Breakthroughs have come only recently, long enough for Covington to have observed and promoted a shift away from a fatalism – and a stigma – that was preventing any progress in reducing death from suicide while we eradicated diseases and tackled other threats, such as road accidents and smoking.

    Covington credits a book and a bridge with accelerating that change. In Why People Die by Suicide (2005), Thomas Joiner, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, drew on the testimony of survivors, stacks of research and the loss of his own father to upend minds. He recognised the myriad pressures on a suicidal mind – substance abuse, genetic predisposition to mental illness, poverty – but identified three factors present in all of those most at risk: a genuine belief, however irrational, that they have become a burden to those around them; a sense of isolation; and the ability, which goes against our hard-wired instincts of self-preservation, to hurt oneself (this combines access to a means of suicide with what Joiner describes as a “learned fearlessness”; Covington calls it an “acquired capability”). “[The book] gave an architecture to what was going on that we had not seen before,” Covington says. “It was like a crack through the entire field.”

  44. Look what I found on tumblr:

    Very apropos, given that there is a new book in the ‘literary torture porn’ genre, currently being pushed as the ‘next big thing’.

    Gawping at a subject is not the same as understanding it, let alone doing something about it, all books like this offer is the opportunity to gawp.

    And as I said in my comment under the Tallent interview, what does it say, about American/Western society, that given how much violence and suffering there is in the real world, people choose to spend their leisure time reading books like this?

  45. Hi Sarah. I have read your entire article as well as the addendums and feel compelled to comment. This book well and truly got under my skin as it obviously did with yours. I have spent the months post reading the book watching every interview with Hanya Yanigahara that I can find as I was so disturbed by the extent of the abuse suffered by Jude and wandered where the character had come from (she has stated in several interviews that Jude came to her fully formed and was her concoction entirely).

    As much as I agree on the book being gratuitous torture porn in certain parts I must confess to being deeply moved by some of it also. The Dear Comrade chapter in particular was incredibly poignant and related to the state that Jude is in grieving the death of Willem. I cannot relate to the rest of Jude’s life as it is a hell I cant even begin to imagine but the way his emotions have been described are very accurate, I have lost two close family members in the space of two years and I can testify to the authenticity of the way the pain he is in is described.

    As Jude is so racially ambiguous and we are never told about his background (JB rather wittily refers to him as Postman) or why he was abandoned by his mother I do wander if Hanya purposely wrote him as a kind of divine figure who is relatable to everyone who suffers every kind of pain imaginable in order for her to portray the emotions of living with trauma post suffering these. I don’t believe any one person could or has gone through all of that but all of us could relate to at least one aspect of Jude’s tormented state. That is purely my take on it though!

  46. Dear Amrosia,

    Thank you for taking the time to read my blog, and thank you for commenting.

    You are absolutely entitled to your own opinion, and if you got something useful out of A Little Life then you are absolutely entitled to that as well.

    But I cannot accept any kind of ‘good faith’ reading of it, for reasons I have spelt out clearly above – are you really ok with everything Yanagahara has said, about mental illness, suicide, intimate partner violence (before we even get to the ‘inhabiting darkness joyfully’ stuff)? Does none of that bother you at all? Do you not worry that Yanagihara’s ideology might harm a vulnerable person, telling them that they are broken and cannot be fixed, and that suicide may be the best option for them?

    The ‘divine’ interpretation is not one I can agree with, or see any evidence for (it does not fit with the materialistic, snobbish, elitist bubble of the adulthood sections of the book – have you forgotten that Jude was a corporate lawyer defending Big Pharma from whistle-blowers?). Jude is Yanagihara’s puppet, he is not a real person or a realistic character (I have never claimed she got everything wrong, but the whole is worse than the sum of its parts), in the end, he simply does not matter.

    My dad is currently dying of brain cancer, I resent every tear and every strong emotion I wasted on this book, and I’m glad I’ve forgotten enough of it to not be able to make any parallels with my own experiences now.

  47. Does it even matter if Yanagihara did write a good account of mourning (does it justify the whole)? Are we incapable of mourning on our own? Can we not recognise our own emotions without seeing them written down first?

    I am not being in any way flippant with these questions, it is something I have been thinking about a lot these last few months.

    The purpose of writing, of art, has become something of a theme on this blog (and I have been drafting something on this subject I hope to post in the next few weeks); does art actually mean anything, can it really change things in the real world, or is it just escapism?

  48. Firstly i am very sorry to hear about your father. My mother also died of brain cancer and it was the 8th anniversary of her death yesterday.

    In response no i am not ok with everything Yanagahara has said, about mental illness, suicide, that’s the aspect of the book I disliked and disagree totally with Yanagihara’s idea that some people are broken and cannot be fixed, and that suicide may be the best option for them. I felt this was an extremely dangerous message to put across.

    In response to are we we incapable of mourning on our own abd can we not recognise our own emotions without seeing them written down first? I felt a sense of solidarity and comfort that the state jude is in when he is grieving is the same state I was in. It can be debilitating to feel that no one else could understand what you feel and in addition to the pain of grieving I felt the isolation and loneliness especially when two years later i lost my younger brother.

    I think in the case of this book one could either immerse themselves in the fictitious new york created by yanigahara and surrender to the fairytale element of it or not be able to overcome how farfetched and unrealistic it is. Either way it seems to get under your skin! I respect your opinion totally and have found your blog very interesting.

    I hope you find peace and strength to get through the testing time you are going through

  49. Amrosia, thank you for your reply, and my condolences to you too.

    Your reaction to the book illustrates something about its fans I really cannot comprehend; you admit that a lot of the book is bad or even dangerous, but you seem to find that an acceptable price to pay for the few good bits.

    Yanagahara has said that everything was ‘turned up too high’, and she was happy to tip over into ‘bad taste’, that she was using Jude to ‘prove’ her ideology – what does that say about Jude? He is a figure of scorn, and Yanagihara is his mocking creator; I cannot believe that she doesn’t hate her creation in some way, so what you are identifying with is something Yanagihara herself finds contemptable.

    Suggesting that I have to not use my ethical or critical facilities in order to enjoy a book, is to admit that the book has no real value; for a piece of art to have value, it must be able to stand up to ethical and intellectual scrutiny.

  50. I don’t believe one should not have to suspend ones ethical or critical facilities in order to enjoy a book. I have read many reviews on this book and watched interviews where real life survivors have spoken of how they identified with Jude, whether it is the self harming or the abuse. As I stated I identified very much with the grieving state that he is in in the Dear Comrade chapter. I do believe that if survivors are finding solace or seeking help on the back of reading the book then that can only be a good thing. Most survivors of abuse never talk about it let alone seek help and some of the shame and isolation could stem from the ideology that no one could understand what they are going through. If this book is inviting discussion and encouraging this extremely sensitive topic to be spoken about more, then yes I do believe that despite aspects of it being over the top themes in the book such as how much the physical body can withstand and what is possible to overcome are interesting themes for discussion even if the ultimate outcome in this book is not positive.

  51. Dear Amrosa, may I ask (and of course, you are under no obligation to answer), did you read A Little Life specifically because you were interested in Yanagihara’s take on mourning, or did you read it because it was a ‘literary sensation’ and everyone was reading it?

    I ask because the aspects of the mourning process she writes about, the importance of scent, the keeping of old clothes and voice messages (yes, I do remember some details!) are all pretty generic (by which I mean universal). It’s established knowledge that scent plays a major role in memory, and the other things are all there in popular culture already; in Brokeback Mountain, with the intertwined shirts kept first by Jack, then by Ennis, plus neither of them being able to give up on the past and move on with their lives; in The Simpsons, after Maude Flanders dies, and Ned can’t bring himself to smooth out the sheets on her side of the bed; and I’m sure I have read many confessions on PostSecret, where people describe entering a departed relative’s number onto a new mobile, or repeatedly listening to a voice message so it won’t be automatically deleted, or calling a number just to hear the answering message. My point is, Yanagihara has not come up with any new insights into the human condition with regards to mourning.

    The same with child (sex) abuse, there have been lots of books published, written by real victims/survivors; A Child Called It was published in 1995, and there have been plenty more since then. Also in fiction, Nabokov’s Lolita was originally published in 1955 (it has been largely misinterpreted as a ‘love story’, but was not intended as such), or, for example, Mysterious Skin (book, 1995; film, 2004), which, as I said above, is vastly superior to A Little Life.

    Sex abuse, perpetrated against adults or children, has barely been out of the news for the past decade, at least, with the ongoing scandals in the Catholic Church, the Rochdale/Rotherham grooming in the UK, Jimmy Saville, Cyril Smith, and just now Harvey Weinstein – it’s not like anyone can pretend not to know that these things happen anymore.

    I think part of the issue here is that we are not talking about exactly the same thing; yours is a tight, individual, focus on the part of the book that resonated with you personally, while I am looking critically at the whole phenomenon, book, author, critical and public response.

    If A Little Life is genuinely ‘award worthy literature’, then all literature is worthless and it can all go in the bin.

    I honestly do think, given that the book is 700+ pages long, professional reviewers did not have time to read it and think about it properly before the deadline for publishing; it was easier to praise it than admit to being taken for a ride by it (notice that Mendelsohn’s review came out months later, and the review from an emergency room psychiatrist I link to above was after a re-read nine months later).

    It’s ok to admit to being taken for a ride, I was, I was conned into an unearned emotional response.

    Reading A Little Life had an extreme effect on me, it left me feeling devastated for weeks after. I read it quickly and uncritically, more the fool me, but in the end, it was only a crutch, a cipher, a distraction from my real-world problems that were too difficult for me to deal with at the time. If I hadn’t been ‘vulnerable’ in the first place, it would not have been able to affect me like that; I am still ashamed of the fact that I was crying over this garbage book at a time when real refugee children were drowning in the Mediterranean.

    You want to know the message I got from reading A Little Life? The message I got was that my life was worthless and I should just kill myself. I’m not beautiful and brilliant like Jude, I don’t have rich, famous, powerful friends who arrange their lives around me, and nobody in the real world has suffered enough compared with Jude St. Francis, what ‘excuses’ do the rest of us have?

    Yanagihara is very clearly saying that people with a mental illness are ‘broken’ beyond repair and that their lives are not worth living, this is bigotry.

    My reasons for criticising may have started out as emotional, but my criticisms themselves are rational. The emotional effect is long gone, only the intellectual outrage remains; this is OCD, not PTSD. No one likes being made a fool of, this book made a fool out of me.

    Yanagihara fundamentally disrespects the subjects she writes about (except the abusers, it is very important to her that we understand that the abusers in the book are complicated people with more to their identities than child rapist, pimp, or domestic batterer; pity the writing is such that they are all cardboard cut-outs). I really do think it is all one big sadomasochistic joke to her.

    There is an unpleasant strand of materialism running through the whole thing, the idea that Jude matters only because he ends up rich and powerful, ie as someone important. (Remember when Jude is in hospital, and he tells Ana everything that happened to him, but there is not even a side-note about the children’s home being investigated, even though there were still children being abused there?)

    If people are only willing to listen to someone because it reminds them of Jude and the weird kick they got out of reading A Little Life, or if people believe they will only be listened to if they can link what happened to them to Jude (because Jude is important and special in a way no real-world victim could be on their own), that isn’t actually a good thing.

    Real victims/survivors deserve better; you deserve better, I deserve better, everyone deserves better than this morally-dubious, mean-spirited, garbage torture-porn book.

  52. Hi Sarah. Of course i am happy to respond to your question. I read the book as it was being spoken about so much and I was intrigued to know what all the fuss was about. In particular i saw two reviews on booktube one that was gushing about how it was the most amazing book was and other that ripped it to shreds and pretty much said everything you’ve said in this blog. The fact that it evoked such extreme reactions and on the opposite ends of the spectrum was what made me want to seen for myself and read the book.

    May be if I read it again I would see it differently. I only read it once. I do totally agree that the outcome for jude doesn’t inspire positivity

  53. Hi Amrosia,

    I doubt it could survive a second reading, without the ‘striptease’ element to keep the pages turning, but good luck to you if you do try!

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